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N6856C accident description

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Crash location Unknown
Nearest city Blandburg, PA
40.687007°N, 78.410851°W

Tail number N6856C
Accident date 20 Apr 1997
Aircraft type Lockheed PV2
Additional details: None

NTSB description


On April 20, 1997, about 1437 eastern daylight time, a Lockheed PV2, N6856C, was destroyed when it impacted trees while dropping fire retardant in Blandburg, Pennsylvania. The certificated commercial pilot/owner and co-pilot received fatal injuries. The airplane, operated by Hirth Air Tanker, was flying in support of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Forest Fire Protection. Visual meteorological conditions existed and no flight plan was filed for the flight conducted under 14 CFR Part 137. The flight originated from the Mid-State Airport, Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, about 1415.

The airplane had been dispatched from Mid-State Airport to drop water on a fire. According to a witness in a fire tower, "I reported when it (N6856C) passed Lost Mt. It went over to the fire, turned west past the fire, then turned and went east back past the fire. Then turned west again to make its drop."

Another witness southeast of the accident site stated:

"...I observed the aircraft on its run just before it crashed. I estimate the aircraft was in my view about twenty to twenty-five seconds. The engines did not sound like they were malfunctioning as the props sounded synchronized and they were not turning at an excessive R.P.M. Nothing was trailing from the aircraft such as smoke or fuel. The plane passed in front of me at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, however, it would have been much closer to the ridge-tops, as I was in a valley. I observed the airplane making a shallow, descending left turn, heading into the wind. It continued descending and turning below the line of my sight..."

A helicopter pilot dropping water on the fire, and firefighters on the ground stated that the air tanker made radio contact inbound to the fire. Clearing the airspace for the air tanker, the pilot stated that he positioned himself about 1 mile to south of the fire. The pilot hovered the helicopter in this location at 1,000 feet agl, and watched as the air tanker approached from the northeast.

The helicopter pilot stated:

"At 14:33, tanker 39 [tanker 38] approached from the N.E. at approximately 3,500 feet M.S.L. and made a descending left turn to a heading of 295. At 14:35, upon reaching the fire line...[tanker 38] made a drop and flew through a heavy smoke line. I witnessed the right (upslope) wing contact trees. The aircraft then rolled 90 vertical left wing low and knife edged into the side of the mountain...Winds were 330[degrees] @ 12 gusts 18. Smoke direction was 100 [degrees], downdrafts were present."

A firefighter on the ground that was in radio contact with the airplane stated, "...[the pilot] told me he was going to make a high, dry run and asked me where I would like the drop." The firefighter instructed the pilot to give him "one drop across the header of the fire."

The firefighter then observed the airplane make a "very high fly over (approximately 2,500 feet)." The airplane then went out of sight and returned a few minutes later and reported that he was on final approach. The firefighter further stated:

"...[the airplane] was coming in - everything sounded normal - engine sounded good. In my years of experience as a forest patrolman, I have personally witnessed this pilot making 50 or 60 drops, and this drop looked no different than any other drop...[the airplane] came in, made a good drop on the header of the fire...then I saw..[the airplane]...making a jerking motion up on its right side - right wing down...I then heard a loud crash that sounded like metal flying through trees..."

The accident occurred during the hours of daylight about 40 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude, and 78 degrees, 24 minutes west longitude.


The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land, multi-engine land, and instrument airplane. The airplane multiengine certificate had the following limitation: "VFR ONLY". The pilot obtained a type rating for the Lockheed L-B34 (PV2), in December, 1986. The pilot's logbooks were reported to be in the airplane and not located. In the Pilot/Operator Aircraft Accident Report, the co-owner stated that the pilot's last Biennial Flight Review was during February 1996, in a Cessna 170. On the pilot's application for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry contract, dated January 15, 1997, he indicated a total of 2,000 plus flight hours, of which 300 hours were in multi-engine airplanes, and 170 hours in the PV2. No records on the pilot's training in the PV2 were available.

The pilot obtained a second class medical certificate on July 19, 1996, and a review of the pilot's applications for Airmen Medical Certificates was performed. The color vision block on the oldest available application from 1984 stated, "24 plates of 24 plates missed of the Ishihara colour vision test." A limitation on the 1984 airmen's medical certificate stated, "not valid for night flying or color signal control." The limitation was listed on all subsequent airmen medical examinations, which included the medical dated July 19, 1996.

According to data compiled and submitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the co-owner of the Hirth Air Tankers, the pilot began his air tanker fire fighting airplane experience in 1989. Between 1989 and 1997, the data indicated that the pilot accumulated a total of 1,128 fire retardant drops as pilot in command and co-pilot, in both single and multi-engine airplanes.

The co-pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single and multi-engine land. The application for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry contract, dated January 27, 1997, indicated a total of 1,977 flight hours, with 25 multi-engine hours, and 18 hours in the PV2.

The co-pilot obtained a second class medical certificate on March 5, 1997, with no restrictions.


The PV-2 was a former military airplane built in 1945, and had a gross weight of 33,000 pounds. It was equipped with two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-31 engines. Each engine had 2,000 horsepower with a Hamilton-Standard three bladed hydromatic-full feathering-constant speed propeller. The civilian version of the PV-2 had the external wing fuel tanks, the bomb bay and cabin fuel tanks removed. The retardant tanks were installed in the bomb bay area and each tank had a capacity of 525 gallons for a total of 1,050 gallons.


The weather recorded at 1450, at Altoona-Blair County Airport, located 20 miles to the south, was: Clear skies, wind: 340 degrees at 12 knots, temperature: 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The helicopter pilot reported on site weather as: Clear skies, wind: 330 degrees magnetic at 15 knots with gusts to 20 knots, Temperature: 50 degrees Fahrenheit.


The airplane impacted on a steeply inclined, wooded, valley wall, sloping about 40 degrees, at an approximate elevation of 1,900 feet msl. The airplane was fragmented and pieces of the wreckage escaped the ensuing fire when thrown westward and rolled down slope from the main wreckage debris field. The initial impact crater was a long, narrow trench, about 18-24 inches in depth and oriented about 320 degrees magnetic. The trench contained two deep gouges, about the same distance apart as the two engines on the airplane. The furthest west gouge contained the three left propeller blades embedded in the ground, with chordwise scratching on the blades.

The left engine was found west of its propeller about 30-40 feet, and was consumed in the ensuing fire. The right engine, with the propellers still attached, came to rest wedged against a tree, about 40-50 feet down slope from the east gouge in the trench. A burnt portion of the twin tail empennage was found 30 to 40 feet west of the impact trench.

Travelling east, away from the main debris field, pieces of the airplane were located at 300 feet. Between 300 feet and 450 feet, pieces of a white radio antenna, similar to the one on the bottom of the airplane's fuselage, large paint chips matching the color of the airplane, and fresh tree cuttings were found lying on the forest floor. At 480 feet, a rubber hose and a rubber gasket were recovered. Both of these parts were later matched up with similar parts on the right engine from a similar airplane. In this location, a 10 to 12 inch diameter tree was observed, missing its top 6 inch diameter branches about 40 feet above the ground. The predominate trees in the area were deciduous with early spring buds.


An autopsy was performed on the pilot on April 21, 1997, by Dr. Vimal Mittal, of Memorial Hospital, Johnstown Pennsylvania.

Toxicological testing was conducted by the FAA Toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was negative for drugs and alcohol.


The fire had burned in the valley that was oriented east/west. The topography map of the area depict contour lines for the base of the valley at 1,400 to 1,600 feet, while the surrounding plateau tops indicate an elevation of 2,355 to 2,467 feet. The fire had burned up slope on the north wall of the valley. According to the helicopter pilot, the fire was about 1,900 foot elevation of the valley wall when the air tanker arrived.

The helicopter pilot stated that he experienced turbulence which he thought was due to the topography and winds, along with the convective activity created by the fire. The smoke rising from the fire was captured by local news crew and showed the smoke drifting on a southeasterly heading.


The wreckage was released on April 22, 1997, to Mrs. C. Hirth, co-owner of the company.

(c) 2009-2018 Lee C. Baker / Crosswind Software, LLC. For informational purposes only.