SALT LAKE CITY – An air tanker dropping retardant on a southern Utah wildfire this month veered off its flight path while following a lead plane moments before crashing into mountainous terrain, killing both pilots aboard, according to a preliminary federal report.
The National Transportation Safety Board found the Lockheed P2V-7 was on its second flight of the day dropping retardant when it followed another plane into a shallow valley less than a half-mile wide and 350 feet deep.
“The lead airplane flew a shallow right-hand turn on to final, and dropped to an altitude of 150 feet above the valley floor over the intended drop area,” the report released this week said.
The P2V-7 then crashed into the mountains about 700 feet off the lead plane’s flight path, the report said.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said Wednesday that the agency is still investigating the cause of the June 3 crash, including potential mechanical failure, pilot error and a probe into whether the plane’s deviation from the lead aircraft’s flight path may have been a factor.
Complete findings probably won’t come for months. The preliminary report did not cite any causes.
Experts say a lead plane is typically used to guide the larger tanker into the drop zone above a blaze.
Tanker pilots are supposed to keep the lead plane in sight, but that can be difficult in smoky conditions close to the ground where wind can push the plane around, said Thomas Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association.