Witness: Tanker appeared normal before Reno crash
RENO, Nev. (AP) ” A worker at an air tanker base told federal investigators “everything appeared normal” moments before a firefighting plane took off from an airport north of Reno and crashed, killing three crew members.
The employee at the tanker base at Reno-Stead Airport saw the plane taxi to the runway and said everything appeared normal before the fatal crash Sept. 1, according to a preliminary report posted Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board on its website.
“The witness reported watching the airplane take off and at an elevation estimated to be between 100 to 300 feet above the ground, he observed the left jet engine emitting flames, followed by the left wing being engulfed in flames,” the report said.
The witness said that about two seconds later the airplane’s left wing dipped and the tanker crashed and burst into flames, the report said.
The report said remnants of the P2V-7 aircraft owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont., were recovered from the site and would be examined further.
Killed were pilot Calvin Gene Wahlstrom, 61, of Huntsville, Utah; co-pilot Greg “Gonzo” Gonsioroski, 41, of Baker, Mont., and mechanic Zachary Jake Vander-Griend, 25, of Missoula.
NTSB investigators have said it could take months to determine the cause the crash.
“The cause of the fire, that is the question. And that might not be forthcoming for some time,” Tom Little, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said last week.
“I asked the operator if they had ever experienced anything like this and they haven’t,” he said.
The tanker was built in 1962 and was one of 12 Neptune had on contract with the Forest Service to fight fires.
The plane had made a drop of fire retardant on a blaze south of Lake Tahoe on Labor Day, and then returned to the airport.
Shortly before 6 p.m. that day, it received orders to make a run on another fire in Calaveras County, Calif., roughly 80 nautical miles from Reno, officials said.
The call for the plane’s services was canceled around the same time it was taking off and crashed, officials said.
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