SACRAMENTO — The fatal crash of a federal air tanker has thrown open a simmering Pandora's box of accusations, ranging from allegations that a flawed U.S. aerial firefighting system puts money before safety to assertions the program is a front for tough, secret overseas CIA missions that abuse the aircraft.

Federal officials and its private contractors — who supply the big retired-military planes, maintenance and pilots to the U.S. Forest Service — deny such accusations.

But officials, off the record, and sources close to the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Oakland Tribune there are conflicts of interest and gaps in oversight that jeopardize safety; and that the planes have been used secretly by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Some of the allegations are documented in the history of the program, reviewed by the Tribune, which in past decades has included numerous and varying investigations, criminal trials, prison sentences and civil lawsuits.

The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't determined the cause of the April 20 crash that killed three crewmen north of Chico. In three previous crashes, the aging air tankers broke up in mid-air due to structural flaws.

Needing new planes

No matter whether the plane failed structurally say some independent aviation consultants such as John Nance, the U.S. government simply needs a new tanker fleet.


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Aero Union, based in Chico, says its P-3 that crashed April 20 was properly inspected. But one of those relied on to ascertain the planes' airworthiness — DynCorp International, a major defense contractor — said it never physically inspected the aircraft.

"We had a contract to look at the way the planes were inspected," Greg Lagana of DynCorp said during TV interviews. 'We never physically inspected the aircraft."

Fueling speculation, Aero Union has been sold to a little-known, Seattle-based investment company, Lake Union Capital Partners.

Mass e-mail exchanges over issues last week within the air-tanker community became so heated that one government employee tried to call a cease-fire: "All right, people. This has been a (bad) week and we've all been affected one way or another. Let's just all take a step back and take a deep breath. Count of three. Ready? Good."

Underlying the controversy ignited by the April 20 crash is a question that state and national politicians are now asking: Why does the nation with the world's most powerful military have a homeland security force against potential terrorist-set wildfires that relies heavily on largely worn-out planes?

There are no ready answers and no indications that the Bush administration will make changes a priority.

Forest Service officials say they're shifting more to helicopters — a controversial move.

State action

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed concern, he has vowed to field California's entire force of 23 medium-sized, retired-military air tankers that was gradually upgraded over the past 13 years for a mere — in U.S. government terms — $70 million.

But governors of nearby states, without such forces, are much more worried about the fact the U.S. Forest Service can now field only six unrestricted air tankers out of a fleet that numbered 33 before the planes were grounded.

Northwestern governors are demanding the federal government allow state firefighting forces to attack wildfires on federal land so they don't spread onto state land and that U.S. officials resolve their air-tanker safety questions.

"We're going to ask the federal government to allow us to respond immediately, so we do not have issues of jurisdiction," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was flanked at a news conference this week by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Earth concerns

The issues surrounding firefighting on federal lands — which comprise a fifth of California — are further complicated by environmental debates over whether wildfires should be allowed to burn in national forests.

In California, in particular, homes and wildlands are side by side. 

The most elusive of the allegations — use of the aircraft covertly by U.S. intelligence agencies — has been spurred by disclosures that some of the military-surplus planes intended for firefighting were, at one point, used by the CIA overseas.

In another case, improprieties in the transfer of retired-military aircraft — which are ultimately still owned by the U.S. government — led to convictions on federal charges and prison sentences for those involved.

The unfolding drama has been punctuated by renewed calls for use of medium-sized, Canadian-produced air tankers, as well as an Oregon firm's 747 jetliner and Russia's jumbo-jet cargo planes that have been converted to aerial firefighting aircraft.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, delivered a speech on the House floor, in which he called for importation of the Russian aircraft.

As an aviation consultant, Nance said a growing number of surplus U.S. C-141 cargo planes could be scrutinized for conversion to air tankers, as well.

In addition to whatever the U.S. Forest Service can field, the Air National Guard maintains eight modern C-130s that can be swiftly converted to air tankers.

But Nance said that "we simply do not have enough reliable, modern, properly maintained air tankers and we have yet to fully address the question of who should be doing the flying."

"This is the challenge Congress is facing and they don't know it," Nance said. "Even the congressional delegations from the western states most affected by these challenges are apparently unaware that the present system has all but collapsed. Patchwork fixes will no longer work."

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.