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N7620C accident description

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Tail numberN7620C
Accident dateJuly 18, 2002
Aircraft typeConsolidated-Vultee P4Y-2
LocationEstes Park, CO
Near 40.312778 N, -105.236944 W
Additional details: None

NTSB description


On July 18, 2002, at 1840 mountain daylight time, a Consolidated-Vultee P4Y-2, N7620C, under contract to the U. S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and piloted by a commercial pilot, was destroyed when it impacted into mountainous terrain 6 miles southwest of Estes Park, Colorado. A post-crash explosion and fire ensued. Prior to the impact, the airplane's left wing separated and aircraft control was lost while maneuvering to deliver fire retardant on the Big Elk wildfire, burning in an area northwest of Lyons, Colorado. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The aerial attack flight was being conducted under the provisions of Title 14 CFR Part 91, public use. A company visual flight rules flight plan was on file. The pilot and second pilot on board the airplane were fatally injured. The flight originated at Broomfield, Colorado, at 1814.

According to the Airtanker Base Manager at Jeffco Airport, Broomfield, Colorado, the airplane, Tanker 123, was dispatched to join other airtankers, Tanker 161 and Tanker 22, a helitanker, number T-16, and a U. S. Forest Service lead airplane, Lead Bravo 8, to drop fire retardant on the Big Elk Fire. The airplane had flown seven previous air attack missions on the fire that day. Prior to the accident mission, the airplane was loaded with approximately 2,000 gallons of fire retardant, and 550 gallons of fuel.

The captain of T-161 said, "Tanker 22 had just completed his drop and Tanker 123 had observed the drop and was preparing to drop. All communication between 123 and Lead Bravo 8 was normal. I fell behind T-123 on downwind and base. I looked away momentarily and I again focused on T-123. I noticed his left wing was falling. The aircraft was in a 15 to 20 degree bank. I next saw fire near the fuselage as the wing failed inboard of the number 2 engine. The aircraft pitched nose down in a huge fireball and plunged into the ground vertically starting an immediate large fire."

The copilot of T-161 said Tanker 123 was in his base turn for the drop and in a "smooth 15 to 20 degree bank turn", when the left wing separated from the airplane. "The aircraft then went into a rotation and impacted the ground." The copilot said that operations were normal and the weather in the area consisted of "the smoothest, least turbulent conditions of the day."

The pilot in the Forest Service leadplane said, "The conditions were perfect for a tanker drop. No turbulence and no smoke in that area." The pilot said, "I had just made two runs with Tanker 22 on the same drop area. He had departed and I allowed helicopter 72D to make a water drop on the area. Tanker 123 was on scene when Tanker 22 made his split load drop, two different runs. I instructed Tanker 123 that we would be extending Tanker 22's first drop. Tanker 123 responded with something like, 'We can do that' or 'We see that," and that he was on downwind for the drop. I told him I was at his 8 o'clock and [he] said that he had me in sight. I then told him I would come up on his left side and continue downwind with him until he was ready to turn back. He then responded with 'I think I'm going to use this nice big valley to turn around in.' I told him that sounded like a good idea to me. We flew approximately 15 seconds before he began a gentle turn to final. We continued in the turn from downwind to final without squaring off for a base, which is normal on tanker runs." The pilot said that after he turned on final, he told the captain on Tanker 123 that his attack run would require a pitch over which was approximately 1/2 mile ahead. The pilot said after he finished that transmission, the captain of Tanker 161 called him and said that the left wing had just come off of Tanker 123 and the airplane had gone in.

A witness on the ground, approximately 6 miles east of the accident location, using a digital camera with a telephoto lens and automatic shutter, took a series of eight still photographs of the airplane at the time of the accident. The photo series shows the airplane's left wing separate at the wing root and fuselage, a fire ensues at the separation, and the airplane enters an approximately 45-degree dive to the ground. The photos also show the airplane in a counter-clockwise roll during its dive toward the ground. The witness said when he saw what was happening, he depressed the shutter button and held it until the airplane went behind a treed ridge. Copies of the eight photographs are provided as an attachment to this report.

Several witnesses on the ground in the vicinity of the accident location said they saw the airplane in a left banking turn. Some of the witnesses described the turn as "steep" or "tight." One witness said the airplane had rolled out of the turn after making a "hard banking turn." At this time, none of the witnesses indicated that there were any apparent problems with the airplane. The witnesses then said the left wing "folded upward" and severed at the "left wing-fuselage point." They all described "slurry" coming out and "fire erupting" from the area where the wing separated. The witnesses said the airplane rapidly descended and impacted into the hillside.

Radar information provided by the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center showed the airplane come out of the Broomfield area and proceeding northwest to the Lyons-Estes Park area where the Big Elk fire was burning. The airplane is shown entering a series of counter-clockwise 3.5 to 4 nautical mile diameter orbits at an altitude averaging 8,900 feet mean sea level (msl), over Lion's Gulch, and in the vicinity of Moose Mountain. Terrain in this area is mountainous averaging from 7,300 feet msl to 8,500 feet msl. The radar information showed the airplane make five orbits over this area. On the last half of the fifth orbit, the radar information shows the airplane at an altitude of 8,500 feet msl and heading approximately 315 degrees. The airplane is shown on a 315-degree heading for 1.3 nautical miles. The airplane is then shown making a left turn to 260 degrees. The airplane is shown on a 260-degree heading for 1.1 nautical miles and at an altitude of 8,400 feet msl. The airplane is then shown making a left turn and rolling out on a 195-degree heading. The airplane remains on this heading for 0.6 nautical miles, when radar contact is lost. The accident site was approximately 0.1 nautical miles southwest of the last radar plot.


The pilot-in-command held a commercial pilot license with single and multiengine land, instrument airplane ratings, dated January 17, 1996. The pilot was type-rated in CV-P4Y airplanes. The pilot also held a flight instructor certificate with endorsements for instruction in single-engine land airplanes. The pilot-in-command held a second-class medical certificate dated January 18, 2002. The certificate contained no restrictions or limitations. The pilot-in-command met contract qualifications for the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U. S. Department of the Interior (DOI) as a pilot-in-command for special mission, low level, airtanker initial attack in PB4Y-2 airplanes. The pilot-in-command completed a company pilot proficiency check in the P4Y-2 on January 31, 2002. At the time of his proficiency check, the pilot had 3,416 total flying hours and 1,094 hours in P4Y-2 airplanes. Information provided by the Forest Service indicated that at the time of the accident, the pilot-in-command had 3,658 total flying hours, and 1,328 hours in P4Y-2 airplanes.

The second pilot held a commercial pilot license with single-engine land and sea, multiengine land and sea, instrument airplane ratings, dated October 15, 1997. The second pilot was type-rated in CV-P4Y, DC-3, DC-B26, M-202, M-404, and N-B25 airplanes. The second pilot held a second-class medical certificate dated January 22, 2002. The certificate contained the following restrictions/limitations: Holder must wear corrective lenses for near and distant vision. The second pilot met contract qualifications for the USDA and DOI as a pilot-in-command for special mission, low level, airtanker initial attack in PB4Y-2 airplanes. The second pilot completed a company pilot proficiency check in the P4Y-2 on January 23, 2002. At the time of his proficiency check, the pilot had 6,403.7 total flying hours and 668.7 hours in P4Y-2 airplanes. Information provided by the Forest Service indicated that at the time of the accident, the second pilot had 6,689 total flying hours and 913 hours in P4Y-2 airplanes.


The airplane, serial number 66260, was manufactured by the Consolidated-Vultee, Corporation, in San Diego, California, in 1945. The airplane, then designated a PB4Y-2, was delivered on July 28, 1945, to the United States Navy for the purpose of conducting coastal sea patrol. The airplane was transferred from Navy service to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in October 1952. The airplane served with a USCG Air Detachment at San Francisco, California, until being retired from military service and placed into storage on August 6, 1956. At that time, the airplane had 2,861.4 total flying hours.

On July 14, 1958, the airplane was removed from storage and converted to an airtanker. The military markings were removed, a spray system was installed, and the airplane was certified airworthy under Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) Part 8. The airplane was registered to Big Piney Aviation Company, Rey, Utah, as N7620, and entered contract U. S. Forest Service operations on August 30, 1958. On March 14, 1969, the airplane was purchased by Avery Aviation, Incorporated, Greybull, Wyoming. In April 1969, the company took the name Hawkins and Powers Aviation, Incorporated. The airplane was then redesignated as a P4Y-2.

At the time of the accident, the airplane was owned, maintained, and flown by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, Incorporated, Greybull, Wyoming. The airplane was being operated under a contract by the U. S. Forest Service to perform fire retardant application as described in the provisions of Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations Part 137, aerial application. The airplane's most recent registration certificate was issued on June 16, 1969.

The airplane operates under Type Certificate (TC) AR-29, approved on April 1, 1958. The TC describes the subject airplane model as a General Dynamics (Convair), P4Y-2. The TC holder is Transair Spraying Company, Inc., Canyon, Texas. The TC reflects the following information:

Restricted Aircraft Specification: An aircraft of the subject model is considered eligible for restricted airworthiness certification when modified for special purpose in accordance with Part 8 of the Civil Air Regulations.

Operating Limitations: To be prescribed for the particular special purpose operations in accordance with Civil Aeronautics Manual 8.30-1. For special purpose operations over congested areas, the military operating limitations must be submitted by the applicant for the use of the CAA representative in establishing civil limitations in accordance with Civil Air Regulations Part 8.30.

The airplane underwent a company "C" check inspection on June 14, 2002. The airframe time at the inspection was 8,259.01 hours. The airframe time at the accident was approximately 8,346.3 hours.


At 1858, the Aviation Routine Weather Report at Jeffco Airport was few clouds at 8,000 feet, ceiling 12,000 feet broken, visibility 30 statute miles, temperature 93 degrees Fahrenheit (F), dew point 52 degrees F, winds 040 degrees at 8 knots, and an altimeter setting of 30.04 inches of Mercury.


The NTSB on scene investigation began at 2115.

The airplane wreckage was located in four areas contained within a heavily wooded valley, approximately 6 miles southeast of Estes Park, Colorado, and in the vicinity of mile marker 8, marking a ½ mile long northwest to southeast-running segment of U. S. Highway 36. All four areas of aircraft wreckage rested along a predominately 210-degree heading.

The first area of airplane wreckage was located on the northeast side of U. S. Highway 36, and consisted of a debris field that spanned a 450-foot wide by 570-foot long area of the ridge. The debris field contained parts of hydraulic lines, oil lines, fuel tank baffling, rubber clamps, cowling pieces from the number 1 engine, and small pieces of rubber and metal. Traces of oil and hydraulic fluid were observed on vegetation within the debris field.

The second area that contained airplane wreckage was located approximately 270 feet from the south edge of the highway. The area consisted of the two sections of the airplane's left wing, the number 2 engine, and number 2 propeller.

The inboard section of the left wing was found resting upside-down at the base of a large tree. A second broken tree was leaning over the trailing edge of the wing section near the section's mid-span. The left wing was broken aft longitudinally at wing station (WS) 2 (wing root) and downward and aft at WS 16. The leading edge of the wing at the wing root was bent upward and crushed inward. The aft spar at WS 2 showed downward bending and aft twisting. The leading edge wing skin and bottom skin showed bends and buckling. The left flap was extended approximately 20 degrees. The inboard section of the flap was crushed inward. The left main landing gear was retracted into the wing and showed no damage.

The number 2 engine was broken at the engine mounts and rested forward and right of WS 5. The ring cowling was crushed aft. The bottom cowling was crushed inward and aft. The engine was intact and remained connected to the wing by fuel and oil lines and control cables. The number 2 propeller showed two of the three blades still mounted in the hub. The first blade was straight and showed chordwise scratches along the leading edge and the blade face. The second blade was bent rearward along the bottom engine cowling and twisted outboard. The third blade was broken out of the hub and found resting on the ground approximately 10 feet east of the inboard wing section. The blade showed chordwise scratches in the front face and along the leading edge.

The left outboard wing section rested upside-down approximately 5 feet north of the inboard section. The leading edge of the outboard wing section was pushed into the base of a tree at WS 21. Approximately 2 feet outboard of the fracture were three propeller strikes in the leading edge metal. All three strikes were within an 18-inch span. The first two strikes were at 40 and 45 degrees from the lateral line and extended aft approximately 4 and 6 inches. The third strike was at 50 degrees from the lateral line and extended aft for approximately 18 inches. A crack in the upper wing skin propagated aft for another 10 inches. A c-shaped crush area was located where the wing section's leading edge was butted against the tree. The crushed area was 12 inches wide and 14 inches deep. The bottom wing skin just inboard and aft of the crushed area was buckled aft. A split in the top wing skin along the rivet seam at WS 24 extended aft 16 inches. The top wing skin was crushed inward to conform to the wing's stringers and stiffeners. The left aileron was intact and attached to the wing section. The fabric skin showed small tears in several locations along its span. Aileron and trim control cables remained intact through the fracture at WS 16 to the wing root fracture, where they showed unraveling.

The third area of airplane wreckage was located at the bottom of the valley, approximately 315 feet south-southeast of the south edge of the highway. The area consisted of the airplane's number 1 engine and propeller. The engine was embedded approximately 2 feet into ground. The lower portion of the cowling ring, several cowling panels, and nacelle skin were crushed and broken aft. Three of the four engine mounts remained with the engine. The mount seats showed circular rubs and crushing. The mount legs were bent downward 20 degrees and twisted approximately 15 degrees counterclockwise. The bolts

(c) 2009-2011 Lee C. Baker. For informational purposes only.