Crash Kills Three Aboard Firefighting Aircraft
8/13/94 - A C130 firefighting aircraft on its way to a blaze in Kern County exploded in midair Saturday, killing the three people on board and sending a huge fireball vaulting into the sky after the plane crashed in rugged canyon country in the Antelope Valley, authorities said.
The aircraft, which was carrying fire retardant, broke into pieces and sparked two small brush fires on the side of Pallet Mountain, about 25 miles south of Palmdale in the Angeles National Forest.
The fires blackened about five acres and were contained by US Forest Service and Los Angeles County Fore Department crews by large Saturday, fire officials said.
A Forest Service spokesman said rescuers will retrieve the bodies today. Spokesman Terry Ellis said the three were employees of the Hemet Valley Flying Service, which owned the plane and contracted it out to the Forest Service to help combat fires.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators will hike to the crash site today to try and determine the cause of the crash, officials said.
"Youíve got to be a mountain climber to get up there," said Los Angeles County Sheriffís Lt. Antonio Madrid, who was at the scene.
Initially, authorities believed two planes had collided in midair be because of the explosion and brush fires. But, Madrid, said, the plane "apparently caught on fire before it crashed...We now believe the plane was cut in half."
A spokesman for Edwards Air Force Base said that its control tower was tracking the plane and that it disappeared from the radar screen about 1:30 PM.
The plane, a privately owned C-130 Hercules, was being leased by the Forest Service to help fight forest fires throughout the country, said Roger Richcreek, a Forest Service spokesman.
Witnesses said the plane lost altitude and exploded before it slammed into the mountainside near Devilís Punchbowl, a Los Angeles County park known for its unusual rock formations.
"We were driving up when we noticed this large plane flying too low," said Sheri Multer of Fontana, who was in the area with her daughter and nephew. "It just exploded into a ball of flames. One of the wings shot off ...I feel sorry for whoever was in the plane."
Harold Hogan who was part of a foursome golfing at Crystalaire County Club in nearby Llano, said the plane was on fire and tumbling through the air.
"It had flames shooting out of it, and making a sputtering sound," he said. "I knew it was going down...Then I saw and heard a huge explosion. It was a huge ball of flame and smoke that probably went 500 feet into the air."
Several seconds after the first explosion, Hogan said, he saw the aircraft slam into the mountainside and heard another crashing sound.
"Iíve never seen anything like this in my life," he said. "It was louder than a sonic boom. It was awesome." David Sandoval of Carson City, Nev., said he was on his way with a friend to Devilís Punchbowl when the friend pointed out the plane before it crashed. "I didnít see any parachutes," Sandoval said. " Whoever was in that plane went down with it. It happened so fast I donít think even the pilot knew what was happening."
Most of the 30 planes leased by the Forest Service are C-130 cargo planes converted to carry fire-retardant chemicals, officials said. The planes carry a minimum of three passengers, including the pilot.
The air tankers are very effective at fighting fires because they can fly at fairly slow speeds, are highly maneuverable and are able to drop fire retardant with great accuracy. During fire season, the planes roam the country, going from one blaze to another.
The C-130 that went down Saturday was en route to a brush fire in Central Kern County believed to have been started by lightening. Although the tanker planes handle air traffic control themselves, they usually check in with local Forest Service crews when they arrive at a fire, authorities said.
Authorities said they did not know if the plane that went down attempted to communicate with Angeles National Forest rangers because of heavy radio traffic generated because of the brush fires.
After locating two other planes on Pallet Mountain (a 1944 C-46 and a C-119), I flew in a westerly direction and found yet another wreck! This one was a C-130 that exploded in mid-air and rained parts down over a large area about five-miles west of the other Pallet Mountain wreck sites. Later I learned that the C-130 was a US Forest Service fire fighting aircraft that was enroute on a fire fighting mission when one of the wing tanks unexpectedly exploded causing the crash. This accident that took the lives of three persons had occurred about a year ago.
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