June 18, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

and T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writers

The air tankers assigned to the Union County Airport have a fairly good record of safety, say airport personnel.

Monday's crash of the Lockheed C-130A near Walker, Calif., was the first serious crash of a La Grande-based tanker since an accident during the Anthony Lakes fire of the late 1950s or early '60s, said Dennis Spray, the county's general services director who oversees the airport. During that fire, a tanker that was either a B-25 or B-26 crashed in a canyon, killing the two on board, he said.

Patricia Wright of Hawkins & Powers Aviation, the owner of the C-130A that crashed in California, said the plane is one of 11 that the company was leasing to either the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. It was a reconditioned former military plane, and had been in the company's fleet since 1990.

The Forest Service began using the C-130s in 1989, said Paul Markowitz, a Forest Service employee attached to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Since then, only two assigned to firefighting duties have crashed. A C-130 crashed in 1994 in Southern California, he said.

"It's a fairly good record," Markowitz said.

Wright agreed, noting that industry-wide, one firefighting plane per year seems to crash among all the various aircraft used by firefighting agencies. It had been many years, she added, since a Hawkins & Powers plane had gone down.

The grounding of all C-130s is a precautionary move, said Nancy Lull, a spokeswoman for the Boise center. Grounding of a type of aircraft by the FAA is routine following a serious accident.

"We want to make sure other planes don't have the same problems," she said. "We want to make sure the planes are safe."

"We would have grounded the 130s if they hadn't," said Wright, a maintenance inspection assistant at Hawkins & Powers. The grounding would be necessary to find out what happened and "to give the crews and their families peace of mind."

As to replacing the downed tanker, Wright said that Hawkins and Powers is, along with investigators from several agencies, "just trying to sort out what happened. We're still totally in the dark."

Hawkins and Powers, she explained, brings in the crews that will fly its leased tankers each spring to familiarize them with the plane. The crews are not employees of Hawkins and Powers. They do, however, become part of the company family.

Losing the plane, and dealing with the loss of a crew, "has been quite devastating," Wright said. "It's like losing one of our babies."

As for replacing the tanker, the company still has tankers ready to fly when given FAA permission. The company has inspection teams out checking the remaining planes, she added, and has sent an expert on the C-130A who has actually flown the plane that crashed, to California to assist the Hawkins and Powers team already there and the National Transportation Safety Board investigation team.

If tankers are needed before the 130As are allowed back in the air, Wright said that it was likely the Forest Service would contact the military for help. Several military tankers, including C-130Hs, she added, are based in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Union County's Spray said he does not know if the aircraft, which was scheduled to arrive in La Grande June 28, will be replaced. He said the airport probably will be notified by the local Interagency Fire Center a few days ahead of arrival.

"We expect the Forest Service to let us know if we're getting another aircraft," Spray said. "We may have only one based here this year."

Even if another plane is assigned to La Grande, "we may never see it," Spray said.

"Two years ago, a plane was assigned to arrive in July, and we didn't see it until September," he said.

Tankers that are based in

La Grande and other places are sent wherever they're needed during the fire season, and when fires are burning in the inland Northwest, numerous planes may land at La Grande. During the fires of the mid-1990s, as many as nine tankers landed for overnight stays at La Grande, Spray said.

Flight crews are assigned to the planes each season.

Mike Davis, 59, one of the crewmen killed in Monday's crash, was planning to spend his fifth consecutive summer based in La Grande. He and his wife, who make their home in Bakersfield, Calif., have stayed at the La Grande Rendezvous RV park each year and were well known to neighbors and people at the airport.

The other crewmen killed who were scheduled to be based in

La Grande were pilot Steve Wass, 42, Gardnerville, Calif., and co-pilot Craig Labare, 36, Loomis, Calif.

Wright, thinking about the lost plane and crew, deflected attempts to consider what had gone wrong on the tanker's last flight.

"We don't even want to speculate," the Hawkins and Powers spokesperson said. "It could be this, it could be that. But our crews are going to give all

the other tankers a thorough check."