Sunday, June 5, 2016

Memorial dedicated in honor of fallen Hotshot firefighter pilots

Daughter of fallen pilot Todd Tompkins presenting an award to a local BLM representative, Cedar City, Utah, June 3, 2016.

CEDAR CITY — Friday, as planes landed on the runway of the Cedar City regional airport, memories flew overhead and landed in the minds of those attending a memorial site dedication service for two fallen firefighter pilots.

It was on June 3, 2012, that Tanker 11 pilot Capt. Todd Neal Tompkins, 48, and his copilot Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise, Idaho, lost their lives fighting the White Rock Fire on the Utah-Nevada border west of Cedar City.

Family members, friends, co-workers and representatives from the Color Country Interagency Fire Center, Cedar City Fire Department, Bureau of Land Management and the Division of Natural Resources gathered at the Cedar City Air Tanker Base to commemorate, honor and memorialize the men’s lives.

Tompkins and Chambless were members of the Utah-based Lone Peak Hotshot crew and had been dropping retardant on the east flank of the White Rock Fire, burning in Hamlin Valley, about 80 miles west of Cedar City.

It was on approach for their second retardant drop of the day when the Cold War-era Lockheed P2V crashed. Firefighters from across the western United States were working the fire when the aircraft went down.

In 2015, Kris Bruington, superintendent of the Lone Peak Hotshot crew, asked readers of Fire and Aviation to support the group’s effort to raise funds to build the memorial.

When fundraising efforts concluded, nearly 100 donors gave $14,881, exceeding the target of $14,566. The memorial is located at the crash site in Hamlin Valley.

The memorial features two 5-feet-tall, 950-pound granite obelisks engraved with the names of the pilots, color photos of the Tanker 11 aircraft, and interpretive signs with the story of the fire and crash.

“In this line of work, we often experience superhuman heroism and it is remarkable. These people wake up and protect families and communities as well as safeguard invaluable environmental resources,” State Forester and Director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands Brian Cottom said in his remarks. “The memorial that we are here to dedicate today will ensure that Ronnie and Todd will never be forgotten.”

Mike Melton, southwest fire management officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, echoed those thoughts.

“The men and women that fight fires are not only national resources but national treasures.” Melton said. “We thank you (the families) for sharing them with us and America.”

Vickie Miner of the Wildlife Firefighter Foundation invited family members and friends to share impressions and memories of the captain and his co-pilot.

Paula Chambless, Ron’s mother, said ever since he was young, her son’s email username was “firepilot.” She spoke about how he loved flying and working as a co-pilot.

“The coordination of the memorial is turning a place of devastation into a place of peaceful renewal.” said Tompkins’ wife, Cassandra Cannon, who was joined by the couple’s three children. She also thanked the foundation and the Lone Peak Hotshot firefighters for “creating a legacy for my children and our family.”

Story and photo gallery:

NTSB Identification: WPR12GA243

14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Sunday, June 03, 2012 in Modena, UT
Probable Cause Approval Date: 09/24/2014
Aircraft: LOCKHEED P2V-7, registration: N14447
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

: NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

Tanker 11 departed the tanker base to conduct its second fire retardant drop of the day in the same location. Upon arriving in the fire traffic area, Tanker 11 followed the lead airplane into the drop zone, which was located in a shallow valley 0.4 mile wide and 350 feet deep. The lead airplane flew a shallow right turn onto final and then dropped to an altitude of 150 feet above the valley floor while approaching the intended drop zone. While making the right turn onto final behind the lead airplane, Tanker 11's right wing tip collided with terrain, which resulted in a rapid right yaw and subsequent impact with terrain. The wreckage created a 1,088-foot-long debris field, and a postimpact fire ensued.

Two witnesses took photographs of the accident sequence photos, and an examination of these photographs showed that the lead airplane was positioned ahead of the tanker throughout the flight; however, the orientation of the lead airplane compared to the orientation of Tanker 11 indicated that Tanker 11 did not directly follow the lead airplane's path to the final drop course. Rather, it was about 700 feet left of the lead airplane’s path and made a wider right turn as it attempted to align with the final drop course. The accident flight crewmembers had previously flown nearly the same exact drop and the lead pilot cautioned them about tailwind conditions during the flight; however, the wider turn suggests that they did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering. In addition, the previous flight was conducted at an altitude above the ridgeline. GPS evidence indicates that the accident flight was conducted below the ridgeline, which would have made it more difficult to detect the rising terrain during the wider turn. A review of the airplane’s cockpit voice recorder audio information revealed that the flight crew did not recognize or attempt to correct the reduced clearance between Tanker 11 and the rising terrain until about 2 seconds before impact.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The flight crew's misjudgment of terrain clearance while maneuvering for an aerial application run, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain. Contributing to the accident was the flight crew's failure to follow the lead airplane's track and to effectively compensate for the tailwind condition while maneuvering.

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