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Feds investigate fire tanker engine that dropped pieces on Fresno neighborhood

A DC-9-87 twin-jet air tanker sits on the tarmac with its left engine removed Monday at the U.S. Forest Service’s Air Attack Base at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the airplane’s left engine failed as it took off Sunday afternoon to fight the Rough fire east of Fresno. Debris from the engine apparently fell in a neighborhood northwest of the airport as the plane returned for a successful emergency landing. FAA and Forest Service investigators arrived Monday to look into what caused the engine failure.
A DC-9-87 twin-jet air tanker sits on the tarmac with its left engine removed Monday at the U.S. Forest Service’s Air Attack Base at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the airplane’s left engine failed as it took off Sunday afternoon to fight the Rough fire east of Fresno. Debris from the engine apparently fell in a neighborhood northwest of the airport as the plane returned for a successful emergency landing. FAA and Forest Service investigators arrived Monday to look into what caused the engine failure. sflores@fresnobee.com

Federal investigators arrived Monday in Fresno so they can learn why pieces of a firefighting aircraft’s jet engine fell to the ground in a Fresno neighborhood Sunday.

A McDonnell Douglas DC-9-87 twin-engine tanker contracted to the U.S. Forest Service by Oregon-based Erickson Aero Tanker experienced engine failure shortly after taking off with a two-ton load of fire-retardant chemicals at the Forest Service’s Air Attack Base at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Fresno police said.

Fresno police reported that the pilots declared an emergency about 3:30 p.m., after shutting down one of the engines when a small fire started in the engine.

“Luckily, the pilots realized what happened and were able to return safely to the airport,” Sierra National Forest spokeswoman Iveth Hernandez said.

Fresno police reported that as the airplane approached the runway, fragments believed to be from the damaged engine fell onto a neighborhood near Swift and Barton avenues, a little more than a mile northwest of the airport runway. Some pieces hit at least one parked car, shattering the rear window.

“I was in my room watching my programs and my husband was watching football, and I heard the plane come over,” said Jeannette Sanders, who lives on East Swift Avenue. “Then I heard an explosion, and I thought, ‘That’s not a right sound to hear.’ … It was so loud it shook the house.” She said she peered out the window and “saw my neighbors outside going crazy in the street and kicking debris around on the ground.”

Sanders said she went outside to see what the commotion was all about, “and when I turned around to come back in the house, I saw a hole in my car window.”

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the agency was told that it was the left engine that failed on the DC-9 aircraft. FAA investigators were due to begin their work Monday afternoon.

The tanker involved was Erickson Aero Tanker 101, said Hernandez. It is a converted MD-87 jetliner – essentially an updated variant of the DC-9 family of jets – with two engines mounted on the fuselage near the tail. According to the FAA’s aircraft database, the airplane was originally built in 1991 and is equipped with a pair of Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines. It received an airworthiness certificate in May 2014.

It’s uncertain how long the airplane could be away from the firefighting effort. “We don’t know that yet because we don’t know what caused it,” said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Jones said the Forest Service has assembled a three-member investigative team “to look at all kinds of information from that aircraft: the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder, all the electronic data.” as well as metallurgical testing on the remains of the engine.

It’s a big deal to us because it’s one of our next-generation tankers. We want to take a real hard look and understand what happened.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones

“It’s a big deal to us because it’s one of our next-generation tankers,” Jones added. “We want to take a real hard look and understand what happened.” Because some of the metallurgical and chemical analysis, it could be months before investigators know for sure what caused the engine failure.

FireAviation.com, a website that reports extensively on firefighting aircraft, reported last year that Erickson Aero Tanker recalled Tanker 101 and two of its other MD-87 air tankers in late June because they were having problems with “intermittent engine surges” when the planes were dropping high volumes of fire-retardant chemicals, possibly due to the engines ingesting the chemicals as they were being released from the belly of the aircraft. The airplanes reportedly returned to service later in the summer after design changes to the retardant tanks resolved the aerodynamic issues.

Jones said she didn’t have information related to those concerns because “Erickson voluntarily pulled their aircraft out of service to deal with the issue they were having.”

Erickson Aero Tanker is a subsidiary of Aero Air LLC in Hillsboro, Oregon. Calls to Aero Air were referred to company vice president Jeff Tobolski, who did not respond to messages left by The Bee on Monday.

While the airplane will be grounded for a while, Sanders’ 2013 Chevrolet Malibu with the shattered rear window was repaired by Monday afternoon. The car was parked in Sanders’ driveway on East Swift Avenue when it was hit by debris believed to be from the airplane’s engine.

Those firefighting planes have been going 24-7, so it seems like it was just a matter of time.

Jeannette Sanders, whose car was apparently struck by falling debris

The home Sanders owns with her husband, Phillip Vargas, sits directly under the takeoff and approach path for the airport. “Those firefighting planes have been going 24-7, so it seems like it was just a matter of time” before something went awry, she said Monday. “We’re still finding debris buried in the ground. We found an eight-inch piece today, but only about an inch was showing.”

Ordinarily, Sanders and Vargas aren’t bothered by airport noise. “Those fighter jets (from the Air National Guard) are always taking off doing their thing, so we’re used to the sound,” Sanders said. “The airport did soundproof my home, but it didn’t soundproof for an explosion.”

“It’s just a freak thing,” she added. “It’s not going to scare me off.”

Tanker 101 is one of a wide variety of airplanes used by the Forest Service to battle wildfires across the nation. The MD-87 is considered a large tanker, airplanes capable of carrying between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons of chemicals. But even with firefighting resources stretched so thin across California and the western U.S., Hernandez said “it’s just one airplane.”

“We’re looking at minimal effects to the fleet,” she said. “We can have another (airplane) quickly to replace it.”

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