Plane In Previous Crash
Owned By Same Company
Widow Of Pilot Blasted Forest Service Over Airworthiness
Updated: 9:51 p.m. MDT July
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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,"
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
Planes and Throwaway Pilots