Planes Fighting Fire Collide, 2 Pilots Die

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at
Wed Aug 29 22:40:59 EST 2001

>From The Oregonian, Aug. 28, 2001, p A1

Planes Fighting Fire Collide
The two pilots die while dropping fire retardant on a 250-acre blaze
in Northern California

By JUSTIN PRITCHARD, The Associated Press
	HOPLAND, Calif. - Two air tankers collided Monday while dumping fire
retardant on a Northern California wildfire, killing both pilots.
	Investigators today began an effort to figure out why the air tankers
slammed into each other fighting the Mendocino County wildfire.
	The blaze apparently was caused by a campfire that got out of
control, Dianne Sanders, spokeswoman for the California Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection, said early today.
	Sanders said the pilots assigned to the planes were identified as
Larry Groff of Santa Rosa and Lars Stratte of Chico.
	The pilots were fighting a 250-acre fire Monday night that quickly
burned four structures and threatened more than a dozen others,
according to California officials.
	Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the
Federal Aviation Administration were expected to begin sorting through
the wreckage today, said Karen Terrill, chief forestry spokeswoman.
	The seven other planes that had been dumping fire retardant on the
blaze at the time of the collision Monday evening were grounded today.
	Fellow pilot Bob Valete said he saw the victims heading toward each
other but couldn't warn them in time.
	"There was no violation of safety. There was nothing out of the
ordinary, nothing violated in terms of safety. They just didn't see
each other," Valete told Fox Television.
	Jeff Anderson saw the collision from his deck.
	"One went straight down into the ground and exploded immediately on
impact. There was a fireball and lots of smoke," Anderson told the
Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "The other one must have tried to maintain
level flight a little longer, but 10 to 15 seconds later it crashed a
little distance away."
	The planes were single-seater Grumman S-2 submarine chasers used
during the Korean War and later acquired as military surplus and
converted into tankers capable of carrying 800 gallons of fire
retardant. Each gallon weighs 9 pounds, totaling 7,200 pounds of
retardant per load, Terrill said.
	The pilots are capable of dropping the retardant in quarters or all
at once, called a "salvo." Terrill was unsure what technique the
pilots were using when the crash occurred. She said that conditions
make flying very dangerous and that many of the pilots were trained in
Vietnam, where they flew combat helicopters during the war.
	"They are extraordinarily skilled pilots who have extraordinary
courage," Terrill said. "I have talked to many of the pilots over the
years, and they say they believe this is more dangerous than combat
	The pilots worked for San Joaquin Helicopters, a Delano, Calif.-based
company that the state has contracted with for a number of years,
Terrill said.
	There were nine planes involved in fighting the blaze when the
accident occurred, said Sgt. Ron Welch of the Mendocino County
Sheriff's Department. The remaining aircraft were grounded after the
collision, which occurred about 7:30 p.m. about eight miles south of
	It was the first California Department of Forestry crash to occur
while pilots were battling a blaze in the air.
	No injuries on the ground were reported in the fire, but some
residents voluntarily evacuated their homes.
	The fire was burning west of Highway 101 and north of the little
community of Hopland.
	The blaze originally had been thought to have been started by a
clandestine drug lab.
	One man was arrested Monday in connection with the blaze. Frank
Brady, 50, of Redwood Valley, was booked for investigation of felony
unlawfully causing a fire.
	Battalion Chief Bob Ceriani said Monday that a second person was
being questioned about possible involvement, and the Mendocino County
Sheriff's Narcotics Task Force had been asked to investigate.
	The fire was 60 percent contained by this morning, and full
containment was expected by 6 p.m., officials said.

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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