Plane In Previous Crash Owned By Same Company
Widow Of Pilot Blasted Forest Service Over Airworthiness Of Plane

RENO, Nev. -- Thursday's crash near Pinewood Springs, Colo., was the second in just over a month involving a firefighting plane owned by Hawkins & Powers Aviation of Greybull, Wyo.

On June 17, a C-130A airtanker crashed near Walker, Calif., killing all three people on board. The plane was making slurry drops on a wildfire when witnesses reported seeing the wings fold up and the fuselage of the plane smash into the ground.

The widow of the pilot killed in the crash blasted the Forest Service earlier this month for ignoring safety problems.

"These men are national treasures, but in the end they are treated like, and die, like dogs," said Laurie LaBare, whose husband, Craig LaBare, and two others died in the crash.

The C-130A that crashed was built by Lockheed in 1956 was among dozens of surplus military aircraft the Forest Service put in the hands of private contractors in the 1980s as part of a controversial exchange program aimed at fortifying the government's firefighting fleet.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to put pressure on these men to fly these planes ... these pieces of junk," Labare told a Portland, Ore., television station.

Former Rep. Charles Rose, D-N.C., led a congressional inquiry into the program in 1992 after two of the C-130s showed up hauling cargo for pay in Kuwait after the Persian Gulf War. He claimed the program was a cover for covert CIA operations and that the planes were not being maintained properly for firefighting.

LaBare, 36, was killed in the June 17 crash along with pilot Steve Wass, 42, Gardnerville, Nev., and flight engineer Michael Davis, Bakersfield, Calif. The plane went down about 80 miles south of Reno.

The contractor reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in 1998 that the plane had two, 1-inch cracks in the wings. But Gene Powers, company owner, said he replaced the wing in 1998 and was confident in the plane's airworthiness.

"We do a better job of maintenance than anybody in the business," Powers said last month. "My own grandson could have been flying that plane. No one knows ... not even the (federal investigators) why that plane crashed, and anything you hear at this point is pure conjecture."

But one of his former pilots disagreed. Greg Speck said he worked as a pilot for Hawkins and Powers until he quit three years ago because of concerns about maintenance.

"I walked away, and it may be the reason I'm still alive," Speck said after the California crash.

Laurie LaBare, who lives near Arcata, Calif., said she heard the crew speak often about problems with spare parts and repairs.

"Very often they would be second-guessed. Sometimes they'd be told they wouldn't get a repair until the thing stopped flying," she said.

A similar account was described in an internal Forest Service review in 1995 after a pair of fatal crashes in 1994. A memo obtained by The Associated Press at the time said maintenance was put off until the problems were so severe the aircraft couldn't get off the ground.

"In many cases the only time a mechanic is sent is when it is so bad the crew cannot fix it," a maintenance program manager for the Forest Service reported in a June 1995 memo to his boss in Redmond, Ore.

"Flight crews should not be doing most of the maintenance to the aircraft. When we allow this to happen the only things repaired are the items that are broken to the point the aircraft cannot fly," Richard R. Watkins wrote.

Safety concerns were brought to the attention of then-agency chief Jack Ward Thomas in 1995 by Patrick J. Kelly, then the agency's regional aviation officer for Oregon and Washington.

"The air tanker program seems to be in a state of decline," Kelly wrote in the memo Aug. 22, 1995, citing Watkins' inspections. "The air tanker accidents and incidents with serious potential of the past several years only highlight the concern."

The team generally dismissed the inspectors' criticism as lacking specific evidence and documentation, but nonetheless issued a list of recommendations intended to improve safety of the air fleet.

Laurie LaBare said she's in financial trouble and likely to lose her home. She said the Forest Service has not offered any assistance.

"They say these guys are heroes, but when it comes to paying survivor benefits -- anything -- they just cut you loose. The government says, 'so sorry, you're a contractor, no can do,"' she said.

Forest Service officials said any death benefits would be the responsibility of the contractor.

"We share the angst of these families," said Alice Forbes, acting assistant director for operations of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"But the bottom line is that the Forest Service contracts with these resources so we don't have to pay for the health benefits or the death benefits. That's the contractor's responsibility."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he plans a "comprehensive review" of the matter.

"It would just be tragic if the families of those who died in such extraordinary circumstances had no benefits," he said.

The government grounded all C-130A's following the accident but other military C-130 models continued to fly, including several that helped fight the Hayman Fire in Colorado.

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