SACRAMENTO — Self-described "tanker widows" have filed a lawsuit in federal court that accuses the Forest Service and five other federal agencies of allowing a contractor to fly a faulty military-surplus firefighting plane that crashed and killed their loved ones.

California relatives of the most recent victims of U.S. air tanker crashes — which threaten to ground the remainder of the aging fleet essential to protecting semi-arid California — are among those expected to join in the lawsuit or file their own in federal court in San Francisco.

Attorneys plan, in part, to cite the government's own recent independent reports that found U.S. Forest Service safety and contracting standards unacceptable.

A representative for the U.S. Forest Service, which has been defending its aerial firefighting program, was not immediately available for comment Sunday.

The Forest Service and its co-defendants — the Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments, the Bureau of Land Management and the Federal Aviation Administration — have not formally responded.

The complaint, filed Friday in the 10th U.S. District Court in Wyoming by a Missoula, Mont., legal firm, says, "For many years, the defendants (federal agencies) have either neglected to, or failed to, properly provide the required updated maintenance schedules, repair techniques and procedures."

Government agencies "were completely responsible" as the plane underwent extensive and improper modifications to serve as a firefighting bomber aircraft," the complaint says.The new lawsuit supersedes an earlier one filed solely against the Wyoming private contractor operating one of two air tankers that broke up in mid-air and crashed in 2002. P4Y-2 co-pilot Milton Stollak, of Cathedral City, died in that crash in Colorado.

The other ill-fated plane that year was a C-130 that crashed in California.

In the wake of those crashes, the Forest Service has been forced to ground most of its 33-plane fleet. One of only seven U.S. air tankers remaining that can fly over populated areas, a P-3 Orion, crashed Wednesday in Northern California, killing three.

Despite harshly critical reports by the National Transportation and Safety Board and a blue-ribbon commission on the problem, "out of sight, out of mind is how (government firefighting) aviation is run," said Dianna Lynn, a spokeswoman for an informal liaison of tanker widows. Her husband, Donn Johnson, was killed in a 1987 crash.

The NTSB called for stricter oversight, and the blue-ribbon report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, concluded that U.S. government "contract provisions contain disincentives to flight safety."

Lynn said, "The bean counters, administration clones and government geeks will never get this. Those in charge are unfortunately the types who run out of burning buildings, not into them."

As the Forest Service struggles with its air-tanker problems, spokesman Matt Mathes said the gap will be adequately filled by extra helicopters. But that assertion has been challenged by experts and regular, line firefighters.

The air tanker base in San Bernardino this summer, for instance, will host only a large helicopter and a spotter plane. Base acting manager Tom Inocencio said both types of aircraft are necessary.

"You always want air tankers for dropping retardant," he said. "Even when it's dry, it's still 95 percent effective. You want the helicopters for a quick, initial knockdown."

Mathes also has expressed optimism that the reason for the P-3 crash last week won't be common to the other six Orions, thereby forcing them to be grounded. However, NTSB officials had no comment about Mathes' guess.

The decades-long saga of the Forest Service and its contracts for use of military-surplus planes obtained by a handful of private U.S. firms includes several unusual legal twists.

Contractors seeking additional profits have even been accused of allowing the planes to be used on questionable overseas missions, possibly for the CIA, which did not keep a log of flight hours or maintenance. 

The new civil lawsuit, which includes negligence and wrongful-death allegations, did not specify how much in damages the victims' survivors are seeking.

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers-

.com.