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Incident Name: Mountain Fire on the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest, Springville, CA
Date: 09/06/06, 1025 hrs
Personnel: two lives lost
Age:
Agency/Organization: DynCorp Pilot under contract with CDF (now CAL FIRE) and CDF firefighter
Position:

Summary:
George Elvin “Sandy” Willett, Jr., pilot, age 52
Robert Paul Stone, CDF (now CAL FIRE) Batallion Chief, age 36

Pilot Willett and Battalion Chief Stone were assigned aerial observation duties for the “Mountain Incident” wildland fire that was in progress within the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest near Porterville, California. The firefighters were operating a North American OV-10A aircraft. The crew departed the airport normally and conducted routine communications with the command center. The aircraft was seen flying between 400 and 600 feet above the treetops by an observer. For reasons unknown, the aircraft hit the tree tops in a box-like canyon. The initial impact was to the top of trees estimated to be 125 feet tall. The plane broke up, fell to the forest floor, and caught fire. Both occupants were killed.

CDF OV-10A, Air Attack 410 CDF OV-10A, Air Attack 410
Sandy Willett, Pilot Sandy Willett, Pilot
Robert Stone Robert Stone

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Maps

Accident Site (approximate)

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • CDF Press Release: September 6, 2006 (38 K pdf)
  • Information from the NTSB, FAA, USFS, AAP, and research by the WLF Staff:
    • September 6, 2006 - Air Attack 410
    • 2 killed: Sandy Willett, Rob Stone
    • Operator: DynCorp Pilot under contract with CDF (now CAL FIRE)
    • Type: North American OV-10A
    • impacted trees then terrain while maneuvering at low level during recon about 25 mi NE of Porterville, CA
    • Registration tail number: #N419DF
    • NTSB # LAX06GA287
  • National Transportation Safety Board: Factual Report (108 K pdf)
  • National Transportation Safety Board: Probable Cause (html) | Probable Cause (25 K pdf)

    The pilot's failure to maintain adequate terrain clearance while maneuvering over rising terrain in a box canyon. Also causal was the pilot's failure to adhere to procedures/directives regarding minimum altitude requirements.

  • NTSB: Full Narrative (html)
  • For more information on this crash, visit the NTSB query page: Use NTSB accident # LAX06GA287
  • Accident Investigation Report: From Cal Fire (163 K pdf)
  • Information from Cal Fire: The OV-10 Airtactical Aircraft (115 K pdf)
  • USFA Database: George Sandy Willett | Robert Paul Stone

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Wildlandfire.com Links:

  • Theysaid: Begins on 9/6/06

    Crash of CDF Plane Claims the Lives of Two Firefighters

    Investigators are examining an OV-10 Airtactical aircraft that crashed today in the Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest and claimed the lives of two firefighters.

    Battalion Chief Robert Paul Stone of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and DynCorp Pilot George “Sandy” Willett were both killed in the crash shortly after 10:30 a.m. while on a mission east of Springville in Tulare County.

    Battalion Chief Stone, 36, was a resident of Visalia and an 18-year employee of CDF. He is survived by his wife, Mary Marinda “Rindi” Stone and two children Wil, age 8, and Libbie, age 4.

    Pilot Willett, 52, was a resident of Hanford and a pilot for four years with DynCorp, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and contracts with California to provide pilots for firefighting. He is survived by his wife, Judy, of Hanford.

    Investigators, CDF personnel and equipment are still reviewing evidence at the scene and more details will be released as soon as they become available. The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified by CDF.

    More information regarding this tragic incident will be forthcoming at the CDF web site at www.Fire.ca.gov.

    Ruben Grijalva, Chief, Director/State Fire Marshall

  • Theysaid: 4/2/2009

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Media Articles and Reports.

  • Informative Article From Firehouse.com: Two Die in CDF Plane Crash (no longer online)
  • South Valley Man Arrested in Connection to CDF Plane Crash

    11/18/2006 | Online Article (no longer online)

    A South Valley man is under arrest accused of setting a fire that led to a deadly plane crash. 52-year-old George "Sandy" Willet from Hanford and 36-year-old Robert Paul Stone from Visalia died when their plane crashed in the mountains above Porterville.

    State and federal investigators say they now believe three mysterious forest fires burning in Tulare County last September were deliberately set and they've arrested a suspect.

    "I am pleased to announce that investigators with California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection arrested 29-year-old Patrick Courtney. In connection with three fires that burned in a remote canyon near Springville," Tulare County Fire Chief Ed Wristen said.

    But not only is Courtney charged with setting the fires, the Tulare man has been booked into jail on homicide charges. Blamed for the deaths of two men killed in a plane crash while observing the fire.

    "An OV 10 tactical aircraft working on the fires for CCDF crashed September 6, 2006 and took the lives of CDF Battalion Chief Rob Stone and pilot Sandy Willet," Chief Wristen said.

    Federal investigators haven't yet determined how the plane crashed. Witnesses said it appeared to have been flying too low. However, if Courtney is found responsible for setting the fires, investigators believe he can be held accountable for the deaths. The CDF says this arrest provides a measure of relief.

    "The deaths of Battalion Chief Stone and pilot Willet have been very difficult for both of our agencies, the community and the families and friends of our fallen firefighters. We are looking forward to bringing this incident to a close," said Wristen.

    The widow of the planes' pilot told Action News on the phone she was glad the legal process was moving forward. Courtney is expected to be arraigned in court on Tuesday. The federal investigation into the cause of the crash is expected to take several more months.

  • Judge denies motion to dismiss Courtney charges

    3/6/2007 | Online Article (no longer online)

    VISALIA - A Tulare County Superior Court Judge denied a defense attorney's oral request Monday to dismiss charges against a Tulare man accused of starting fires that allegedly led to the Sept. 6 plane crash that killed two airborne firefighters in the Mountain Home Demonstration Forest.

    Defense Attorney John Jackson said he plans to file a formal motion to dismiss the charges against Patrick Courtney, accusing the California Department of Forestry of intentionally withholding thousands of pages of evidence that could potentially clear his client.

    “If it were one page of evidence, I could see this as an oversight,” Jackson said after a brief court appearance. “But 2,000 pages is an intentional withholding of evidence. “In my 14 years in the criminal justice system, I have not seen something so egregious as this,” Jackson said.

    The documents in question were part of a CDF internal investigation of the crash, in which investigators discovered a bottle of vodka and pieces of a Glock pistol in the wreckage within days of the fatal crash.

    Jackson said he received 1,981 pages of draft reports and transcripts on eight CD-ROMs, which included five interviews with CDF officials and 20 additional photos of the wreckage, from prosecutor Tim Ward Monday morning. Some of the information contains personnel records that will not be released, Ward said.

    In addition, Jackson said he has yet to receive three boxes of plane maintenance records dating back to 1999, and five micro-cassette tapes that are also part of the CDF Serious Accident Investigation team's inquiry into the crash.

    Courtney is accused of setting several fires in the Bear Creek Drainage area of the forest. CDF Battalion Chief Rob Stone and pilot George “Sandy” Willett were directing ground crews fighting the fires in an OV-10A “spotter” plane when the plane crashed, killing both men.

    Courtney was arrested in November on suspicion of murder after admitting to fire officials that he set several fires after getting lost in the forest Sept. 3. The new information will indefinitely delay Courtney's jury trial on second-degree murder and reckless fire-setting charges, which was set to begin Tuesday, Jackson said.

    Jackson said he would know Monday after reviewing the new information how long he will need to prepare for the trial, and will request a new date Tuesday morning. He said he will also know if he will need to question CDF investigators at the time Judge James Hollman hears his dismissal request to determine why the documents were not disclosed earlier.

    Jackson said he believes that the investigators intentionally withheld the information to slow the case to buy prosecutors time to determine the cause of the crash. The cause became important Feb. 22 when Hollman told Ward and CDF investigators that the cause of the crash needed to be determined before murder charges could be pursued.

    The National Transportation Safety Board, which issued a preliminary accident report in October, has not made a final determination of what caused the plane to go down.

    Ward said investigators approached him Feb. 23 with the information about the gun and the alcohol. Ward told Jackson after a March 1 hearing was continued until the next day. “It helps them out because it gives them a chance to find out what caused the crash,” Jackson said. “They were not ready to go forward with the case, so the continuance buys them time.” In the long term, Jackson said, the actions of investigators could help his client.

    “They have an affirmative duty to disclose all potentially exculpatory evidence,” Jackson said. “And the fact they failed to disclose 2,000 pages of documents does not help their cause either.” “These documents should have been in our hands three months ago.”

    The discovery and the alcohol and firearm at the very least constitute a violation of CDF's employee code of conduct by either Stone or Willett. Both the gun and alcohol have been traced back to Willett, Ward said. Willett, however, had no alcohol in his system at the time of the accident, Ward said.

    Ward also said he has seen no case-clearing evidence in his preliminary review of the report. “I don't expect to find any either,” Ward said.

    Taking aim at CDF investigators, Jackson said the investigation has been biased against Courtney since his November arrest, and should have been handled by an independent party.

    “They showed bias in the investigation, bias in their reports and bias in handling the investigation,” Jackson said. “They did not treat this like a proper homicide investigation, rather they came at it with the mindset that ‘Patrick Courtney is guilty, and now let's figure out the rest'.”

    Ward said, however, an independent agency has been present “every step of the investigation,” and said he has not seen any bias in the state agency's investigation.

    “In terms of the crash, the NTSB has worked with [CDF] investigators, and when it came to the fires, the U.S. Forest Service has been here,” Ward said. “What [CDF] is investigating is not the murder, but determining the cause of the fires, and who better to do that than [CDF] and the U.S. Forest Service?”

  • Courtney to stand trial on March 6

    January 11, 2007 | Online Article (no longer online)

    VISALIA - A Superior Court Judge set a trial date in the case of a man accused of recklessly setting four fires that led to a plane crash that killed a state firefighter and pilot in September. In a twist, prosecutors on Wednesday revived two arson charges against Patrick Ryan Courtney, charges a Porterville judge dropped in December.

    Superior Court Judge James Hollman set March 6 as the date Courtney will stand trial on two counts of murder, arson and recklessly setting a fire. Courtney's attorney entered a not guilty plea for his client, who was present in custody for the arraignment.

    Defense attorney John Jackson fumed after the court proceedings, claiming the District Attorney's office was “out for blood, not justice,” by pursuing the arson charges. “They are basically saying that someone should pay, and they chose Mr. Courtney,” Jackson said. “Again, this goes to show that it is about revenge.”

    CDF Battalion Chief Rob Stone and contract pilot George “Sandy” Willett were directing the attack of post-Labor Day fires Sept. 6 when their OV-10A scout plane crashed in the Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest, killing both men.

    Courtney is being charged with setting the Camp, Jaguar, Sock and Mountain fires in the area of the Bear Creek Drainage which Stone and Willett were examining when they crashed. He was arrested Nov. 18 after a two-month state and federal investigation into the cause of the fires. Courtney admitted to setting several fires to signal his location, to keep warm, and to keep animals at bay according to documents from the investigation.

    Prosecutors, citing a similar case from an incident in 2001, argued that Courtney can be held criminally responsible because his act led to the deaths. Superior Court Judge Glade Roper ruled in the preliminary hearing held in Porterville there was sufficient evidence to charge Courtney with murder and reckless fire-setting, but found no evidence that the fires were arson.

    Ward said charges are commonly added after preliminary hearings, and believes the evidence will support the charges. “We looked back at the record, and compared it to the judge's rationale, and we concluded that there was evidence contained in the record to pursue the arson charges,” Ward said. “It is our prerogative to file those charges, and it happens all the time.”

    Ward added that Jackson has an statutory right to challenge the charges. “We expect to fight that battle with Mr. Jackson down the road,” Ward said. Jackson said he will file a motion to have the arson charges thrown out.

    Courtney, Jackson said, is being targeted because of his previous criminal history: He was convicted of attempted murder and burglary stemming from an incident in 1995. Courtney was paroled in 2002, according to information from the state Department of Corrections.

    Since then, Jackson said, his client has straightened out his life, pursuing a career as a draftsman and working for a local pastor. “He admitted to the fire department that he started some fires, and even showed them where he was,” Jackson said. “When he found out that those fires had potentially become larger fires, he was emotionally upset and shocked.”

    “He's not some ex-con out there ripping off cars, he is actually a productive member of society,” Jackson said. “And not an arsonist.” Courtney, Jackson said, is being victimized because firefighters died in the accident.

    “Everyone loves firefighters, and in something like this, everyone wants to hold someone accountable, and it's not going to be CDF,” Jackson said. “It's going to be Patrick, because he is an easy target, and that is wrong.” Ward said Courtney is being prosecuted for the crime he committed. “The law holds people responsible for criminal acts that lead to a person's death,” Ward said.

    Hollman will rule on any pre-trial motions Feb. 22, and any potential deals in the case will be discussed Feb. 27. “The DA said something about second-degree murder charges instead of first-degree murder,” Jackson said. “But Mr. Courtney is not interested. He didn't commit murder.”

    Courtney faces life in prison if convicted of charges.

  • Tulare Man Pleads No Contest to Arson Fire That Killed Firefighter, Pilot

    March 03, 2009 | Online Article

    Visalia, CA, USA (KFSN) -- A South Valley man is going to prison after admitting to starting several wildland fires that lead to the deaths of a firefighter and a pilot. Pilot George "Sandy" Willett and firefighter Rob Stone were killed when their plane crashed in Sequoia National Forest in September 2006. They were helping fight fires that Patrick Courtney set.

    After battling his case for two and a half years in court, Patrick Courtney entered a "guilty" plea for recklessly starting four wildfires in Sequoia National Forest. The plea brings closure for the families of pilot George "Sandy" Willett and firefighter Rob Stone.

    On Tuesday, Patrick Courtney changed his plea from "not guilty" to "guilty" to setting the four fires.

    Prosecutor Tim Ward said, "The defendant admitted that one of the counts is in fact a serious felony so if he's convicted of a felony in the future that could be used as a strike on his record."

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • Memorial Information: Cal Fire (no longer online)
  • Robert P Stone Obituary:  Rob began his career as a volunteer fire fighter while still in high school. Immediately after high school graduation in 1988, he entered the CDF Fire Fighter Academy. He approached his profession as he did everything else that was important to him – with focus, hard work, and determination. Rob was promoted to Battalion Chief in July of 2006 and was stationed at the Porterville Air Attack Base. He and pilot Sandy Willett were killed in a plane accident while surveying a fire near Balch Park, California. (Submitted by the Stone Family for the 2007 Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial)
  • Memorial Service; Tues Sept 12, 2006 at 2:00 p.m. at the Visalia First Assembly Church, 3737 S. Akers Street, Visalia, California 93277
  • CAL FIRE Angels, Remembering the crew of Air Attack 410
    CDF Communique, Winter, 2007
    By Becki Redwine, fire prevention specialist II, Tulare Unit
  • California Memorial Firefighter Wall in Sacramento: California Memorial LODDs by Wall Order. (84 K pdf) --see page 24

From the WFF Facebook photo collection

Sandy Willett & Rob Stone Porterville Memorial Sandy Willett & Rob Stone Porterville Memorial

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Contributors to this article: Ruben Grijalva, Michael S Williams, Another CDF-BC, Becky Williams, khe2232- Karl.

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