COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — Air Force air tankers fighting wildfires across the nation were grounded as investigators looked into what caused the deadly crash of a military cargo plane fighting a South Dakota blaze over the weekend.
The decision by the military to put seven C-130s on an indefinite "operational hold" has removed critical firefighting aircraft from the skies during one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons ever to hit the West.
That left 14 federally contracted heavy tankers in use until investigators gain a better understanding of what caused the crash.
"You've basically lopped off eight air tankers immediately from your inventory, and that's going to make it tougher to fight wildfires," said Mike Archer, who distributes a daily newsletter of wildfire news.
"And who knows how long the planes will be down?" he said, adding that investigators will take time to make their conclusions.
The C-130 from an Air National Guard wing based in Charlotte, N.C., was carrying a crew of six and fighting a 6.5-square-mile blaze in the Black Hills of South Dakota when it crashed Sunday, killing at least two crew members and injuring others.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced Tuesday that two people had died in the crash. He didn't identify either victim.
The crash cut the number of large air tankers fighting this summer's outbreak of wildfires by one-third.
President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million, but the first planes won't be available until mid-August.
C-130 air tankers have crashed on firefighting duty before. In 2002, a privately owned civilian version of an older-model C-130 crashed in California, killing three crew members. The plane broke up in flight and an investigation blamed fatigue cracks in the wings.
The crash, in part, prompted a review of the airworthiness of large U.S. air tankers and led ultimately to a greatly reduced fleet of large civilian tanker planes. The 44 planes in the fleet a decade ago has dwindled to nine being flown on U.S. Forest Service exclusive use contracts right now.
Another aerial firefighting plane, the Lockheed P2V, has had some problems in recent months. One crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots, and another one crash-landed in Nevada.
A military spokesman said he did not know when the grounded planes would resume firefighting flights. They were used to fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.
The C-130s can be loaded with a device called the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS. The system can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant within seconds through a modified side door toward the rear of the plane.