Pilot dies in California firefighting plane crash

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — An air tanker sent to take on a wildfire smashed into a canyon wall on the edge of Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot, sending wreckage tumbling to the ground below and leaving onlookers shocked at the grim spectacle.

“I heard a large explosion, I looked up on the steep canyon wall and saw aircraft debris was actually raining down the side of the mountain after the impact,” said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Chris Michael, who was stopping traffic along state Route 140 near the west entrance of the park because of the wildfire when he saw the plane crash Tuesday afternoon.

The fire was spreading up the canyon wall, and it appeared the pilot was trying to lay down fire retardant to stop its progress, Michael told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“It appeared from the direction he was going, he was trying to make a drop down the side of the canyon when he hit the canyon wall.”

Rescue crews hiking through extremely rugged terrain found the wreckage and confirmed the death of the pilot, believed to be the only person aboard, several hours after the crash, said Alyssa Smith, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The pilot’s family has requested no name be released until all immediate family members can be notified, Smith said.

There was no indication of what may have caused the crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board would lead the investigation starting Wednesday morning, officials said.

The airplane, manufactured in 2001 and based out of Hollister, is an S-2T air tanker, which is flown by a single pilot and normally has no other crew members. The tanker uses twin turbine engines and is capable of carrying 1,200 gallons of fire retardant, said state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

FAA records show the plane is registered to the U.S. Forest Service, which originally provided the plane to CalFire, Upton said.

Don Talend, of West Dundee, Illinois, was among many park visitors, locals and firefighting officials who saw the crash.

Talend and friends were vacationing at the park when they stopped to snap some photographs of the fire several miles away.

The plane “disappeared into the smoke and you heard a boom,” he told The Associated Press by phone.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Talend said. “There was actually a ranger there behind us. … He had a look of disbelief on his face.”

The missing pilot is an employee of DynCorp., a contractor that provides the pilots for all CalFire planes and maintenance for the department’s aircraft, said Janet Upton, a CalFire spokeswoman.

The fire, one of many that have burned in and around Yosemite this year, had broken out about 90 minutes earlier near Route 140, which leads into the heart of the park. It had grown to about 130 acres by Tuesday evening and forced the evacuation of several dozen homes near the community of Foresta.

“This crash underscores just how inherently dangerous wildland firefighting is and the job is further compounded this year by extreme fire conditions,” CalFire Director Chief Ken Pimlott said in a statement. “We have secured the crash site and will be cooperating with the NTSB on their investigation.”

The last time a CalFire air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, Berlant said.

The agency had another plane crash in 2006, when a fire battalion chief and a pilot were killed while observing a fire in a two-seat plane in Tulare County.

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