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Incident Name:  Butterfield Ranch Fire, a 5000 acre brush fire near Julian in the Anza Borrego Desert
Date:  6/21/95
Personnel:  three lives lost
Agency/Organization:  USDA Forest Service (Beech Barron) and Aero Union (DC-4 airtanker) under contract with the Forest Service
Position: pilots


Michael Smith, age 48, pilot, Region 5 - Regional Aviation Group South Zone
Gary Cockrell, age 33, Tanker 19 pilot
Lisa Netsch, age 31, Tanker 19 pilot in second seat

On the 21st of June, 1995, Tanker 19, a McDonald Douglas DC-4 based out of Ryan Air Attack Base and Lead 56, a Beechcraft Barron, collided while on final approach to Ramona Air Tanker Base. Lead plane pilot Michael Ray "Smitty" Smith (48) of the USDA Forest Service and contract pilots Gary Cockrell (33) and Lisa Netsch (31) of Aero Union Corporation, were killed in the mid-air collision, when Smith's spotter plane hit the DC-4 air tanker. Both planes were on final approach to the Ramona airbase after returning from dropping fire retardant on a brush fire.

Kernville Heliport Cactus Garden with Tribute to Smitty Kernville Heliport Cactus Garden with Tribute to Smitty
Kernville Heliport Cactus Garden Kernville Heliport Cactus Garden

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Accident Location:


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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Concise Information from the NTSB, FAA, USFS, AAP and WLF Staff:
    • June 21, 1995 - Lead Plane 56 & Tanker 19
    • 3 killed: Lead plane pilot Smitty Smith (age 42); and Aero Union pilot Gary Cockrell (age 33) & Aero Union copilot Lisa Nitsch (age 31)
    • Operators: Beech 58P Lead Plane owned by the FS;  McDonald Douglas C-54G Tanker owned by Aero Union under contract with the USFS
    • Type: Beechcraft Barron Beech-58P; and McDonald Douglas C-54G
    • midair collision on approach to Ramona Airtanker Base CA; before the control tower was built.
    • Lead 56: FAA Registration # N156Z ; NTSB # LAX95GA219B
    • Tanker 19: FAA Registration # N4989P ; NTSB # LAX95GA219A
  • National Transportation Safety Board:  Probable Cause Lead 56 (26 K pdf) saved |  Probable Cause T-19 (26 K pdf) saved
    • A Douglas C-54G and Beech 58P were on a fire suppression mission with the USDA Forest Service. The C-54 (Tanker 19) was being used as an aerial tanker, while the Beech 58 (Lead 56) was on a Lead operation. Lead 56 departed the fire area about 5 minutes before Tanker 19. Both airplanes proceeded to an uncontrolled airport at Ramona CA for landing on Runway 27 with a 360-degree overhead approach. Tanker 19 was on the initial approach about 1 mile east of the airport when the two planes collided. Investigation revealed that Lead 56 struck the vertical stabiulizer of Tanker 19, while descending. The empennages (tails) of both airplanes separated and both crashed in uncontrolled descents.

      Before the accident, a Grumman S-2 pilot was following Tanker 19. While in a shallow descent to the airport, he saw Tanker 19 slightly below the horizon and heard T-19 make two calls (at 8 and 2 miles on initial approach). He also heard a transmission from Lead 56 moments before the collision, but did not see Lead 56, nor was he watching T-19 when the collision occurred. Investigators were unable to determine Lead 56's activities after departing the fire area. Transmissions were heard from Lead 56 on the Forest Service tactical (Operations) frequency when the plane was within 10 miles of the airport. Moments before the collision, Lead 56 was heard on the airport's Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). Forest Service procedures required that all pilots transmit their positions on the CTAF within 10 miles of the airport. The Forest Service had not made arrangements with the airport manager to perform overhead approaches, nor were parameters published for initial approach altitude or airspeed.

      The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:Inadequate visual lookout by the Beech 58P pilot and the operator's inadequate procedures concerning 360-degree overhead approaches.

  • National Transportation Safety Board Factual Report: Lead 56 (121 K pdf) | Tanker-19 (121 K pdf)
  • For more information consult the NTSB on-line lookup utility Use NTSB Accident Numbers LAX95GA219B (Lead 56) and LAX95GA219A (Tanker 19). The reports are written identically except for the aircraft names. The report includes both aircraft.
  • Forest Service Investigations - Fatal Aviation Accident History (1979-2000): Pages 32-34 for this incident (366 K pdf) | Entire History (download 4.72 MB pdf)
  • Flight Safety Foundation ( Flight Safety Digest, Vol 18, No. 4, April 1999, US Aerial Firefighting Accidents Involving Fixed Wing Aircraft 1976-1998 (218 K pdf)
  • Smith's, Cockrell's & Netsch's names, death date and brief bios are included in the USFA Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study, published April 2002 (2,888 K pdf)
  • Information and analysis included in the Firefighter Fatality Report for 1995 (297 K pdf)
  • USFS Heroes Memorial: Michael "Smitty" Smith | Gary Cockrell | Lisa Netsch

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  • Theysaid: 7/19/11 (and scroll up)

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Media Articles and Reports.

  • Firefighting Planes Collide, killing three

    6/22/1995 | AP

    Ramona CA (AP) Two planes helping to fight a wildfire collided on 6/21/95 and crashed into a house, killing 3 paople (later determined to be on the airtanker and lead plane) and heavily damaging 2 homes. A twin-engine plane owned by the USFS appeared to clip the tail of a 4-engine air tanker the agency was using on contract... The crash about 30 mi NE of San Diego occurred near the Ramona Airport, where the planes were approaching for landing...

  • Forest Service Safety Steps following NTSB findings

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • USFA Memorial Database: Michael "Smitty" Smith | Gary Cockrell | Lisa Netsch
  • Riverside County Fire Department: Firefighter Aircraft Memorial
  • Smokejumper Obituary: Michael R. Smith
  • Personal tribute:
    On the 21st of June 1995 USFS lead plane pilot Michael Ray "Smitty" Smith died in a mid-air accident while flying lead plane out of Ramona, CA. He was a mentor and friend of mine as well as for many other people. He had been a Smokejumper, a LEO, and an AFMO prior to becoming a lead plane pilot. He was also a role model for many of us in the agency.

    I still remember exactly what I was doing and where I was when I heard about it. I think of him often 
    and know others do as well.


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Contributors to this article: Stanley; Albert S (0711) contributed the photos, John Miller

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