By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Investigators have not determined the cause of the airplane crash that killed a Big Sandy man two weeks ago while he was fighting a wildfire in southern Utah.
Wayne Turner, 58, died June 17 when the single-engine air tanker he was piloting crashed about 14 miles north of St. George, Utah.
The aircraft "dropped a load of fire retardant and crashed into the side of a mountain near Darmon Valley," according to the crash report by the Federal Aviation Administration. "The pilot, sole occupant, sustained fatal injuries and the aircraft was destroyed. Other circumstances are unknown."
The National Traffic Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the accident.
"I've been conducting interviews and taking witness statements," NTSB investigator Howard Plagens said this morning in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office. I will do an airframe and engine inspection. Right now, I'm still gathering information on the plane and pilot."
In a press release posted on the NTSB Web site, Plagens said witnesses reported that when Turner's airplane crashed, it had just completed a fire retardant drop while flying less than 100 feet above downsloping terrain.
"Immediately following the drop, the airplane pitched down and descended steeply into wooded terrain," the release said, adding that Turner did not report any problems with the aircraft prior to the accident.
Turner performed two dry runs over his intended target before releasing the retardant on the third pass, according to the press release. During the drop run, Turner "released the retardant earlier than desired, and was off course," the release said.
Physical evidence at the site indicates that the plane impacted the ground in a near vertical, nose-down attitude.
"No evidence of an inflight structural failure, flight control discrepancy, or obvious catastrophic engine failure was noted at the site," the release said.
The wreckage has been recovered and will be examined in Phoenix, Ariz., by a team of NTSB investigators later this week.
The flight was Turner's third or fourth fire retardant drop of the day, the report said.
Turner had logged about 35 hours in the Dromader M-18 air tanker, of which about 25 hours were flown during simulated and real firefighting operations during last year's fire season, according to the release. He also recently completed three hours of additional training provided by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Turner, an experienced pilot with more than 21,000 hours of total flight time, was working for New Frontier Aviation in Fort Benton under a contract with the BLM.
Dean Bomgardner, an employee of New Frontier and a friend of Turner, said Turner's plane is the third plane the company has lost this year, others going down in March in Arizona and in May in Idaho. Turner was flying a Dromader M-18, one of 76 single-engine air tankers contracted by the BLM to fight wildland fires throughout the country. The aircraft is essentially a cropduster that has been modified to fight fires.
Turner was regarded as one of the best pilots in the state, said Debbie Alke, administrator of the Aeronautics Division of the Montana Department of Transportation. Turner was one of six instructors for the Mountain Search Clinic held each year in Kalispell.
During the program, pilots learn how to navigate in mountainous terrain to assist in search and rescue operations, Alke said.
"Those pilots are kind of the cream of the crop. They are the elite, highly skilled, highly trained pilots," she said.
Turner helped out with numerous search operations, Alke added, including one in January in which a Cut Bank-bound aircraft crashed near Glasgow.
"He was just a great volunteer - ready, willing and capable. He was one of the best," she said.
Turner, a flight instructor, was also an examiner for the FAA, meaning he was responsible for giving student pilots their check rides.
''He was one of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, experienced pilots around,'' said Choteau County Commissioner Jim O'Hara, a flight instructor to whom Turner often referred students.
Turner was the executive secretary for the state Aeronautics Trade Organization, a group that represents those who work in the aviation industry. Part of his duties included coordinating a recertification program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for aerial applicators, Alke said
Turner graduated from high school in Centerville in 1963. He went to Montana State University and obtained a bachelor's degree in agricultural business. During that time, he also earned his pilot's license. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1968 and served as a flight simulator instructor during the Vietnam War. He was honorably discharged in 1974.
"He was such a neat guy. He was so energetic, he was always going a hundred miles an hour," Alke said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.