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Incident Name: Delta Fire in the Sacramento River Canyon about 10 miles North of Shasta Lake, on the Shasta Trinity National Forest
Date:  9/16/87, about 1730 hours
Personnel:  3 lives lost
Agency/Organization:  Hawkins & Powers Aviation under contract with the US Department of Interior (BLM); under operational control of the Forest Service
Position: aerial firefighters


Bill Berg, 48, pilot, of Arlington, WA
Charles Peterson, 28, copilot, of Sheridan, WY
Stephen Harrell, 26, mechanic, of Graybull WY

The pilot and crew of Tanker 135, a C-119, died on 9/16/87 when their airtanker broke apart on a retardant run on a fire on the Shasta Trinity National Forest. The converted WW II vintage "flying boxcar" crashed in clear weather at about 1730 hours while making an initial attack retadrant drop on a 15 acre fire deep in a canyon. The C-119 usually carries 2,000 gallons of retardant; releasing it causes the ship to shed a great weight. The crash, somewhat beyond the fire perimeter, set off a small fire that was quickly contained.

C-119, "Flying Boxcar"

Tanker 135, a C-119 Tanker 135, a C-119

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General Incident Location, 6 mi west of Castle Crags State Park in Shasta County

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Concise Information from USFS, AAP, WLF Staff research:
    • September 16, 1987 - Tanker 135
    • 3 killed: Pilot Bill Berg, Pilot Charles Peterson, and mechanic Stephen Harrell (who was just hitching a ride)
    • Operator: Hawkins & Powers Aviation
    • Type: Fairchild C-119G (3E) Flying Boxcar
    • broke apart after a retardant drop about 6 miles west of Castle Crags State Park in Shasta County, CA
    • FAA Registration # N48076
    • NTSB # none
  • NWCG Safetygram for 1987 (single page excerpt from the larger report 1987 to 1996)
  • Not in NTSB lookup database. Use FAA number N48076. Instead of the NTSB, the investigation was performed by an 8-person Forest Service investigation team.
  • Note: Prior to 1996 NTSB did not investigate Gov owned and operated, Gov owned and contractor operated or some aircraft that were privately owned and operated as "public aircraft". Government agency investigations and reports were/are often hard to find and access. The "Pressler Act", passed in 1995 and enacted in 1996, changed that, making all aircraft accident reports easier to access and lessons easier to learn. (Click the link and search on "Pressler".)
  • Forest Service Investigations - Fatal Aviation Accident History (1979-2000): Pages 17 & 18 for this incident (39 K pdf) | Entire History (download 4.72 MB pdf)

    From the discussion: The Captain of the third C-119G airtanker, who had been the first to attempt a drop, stated that after the aborted run he went around and made a longer run on the fire. All of the C-119G Captains stated that this (fire zone) was a hole and that slowing down to the correct speed was risky and dangerous. They all stated that they had done just that.

    Conclusion: The mishap investigation team concluded that the airtanker was subjected to excessive aerodynamic loads, which led to a catastrophic structural failure of the wings due to excessive speed and probable excessive pitch-up at or immediately after dropping the retardant.

  • 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)
  • Aviation Safety Network: N48076
  • USFA Memorial Database: William M Berg | Stephen P Harrell | Charles W Peterson

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Media Articles and Reports

C-119 Air Tanker Crash C-119 Air Tanker Crash

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

More photos of Tanker 135, a C-119 "Flying Boxcar". From the archives of Tom Stein-Janney.

a C-119G, Tanker 135 a C-119G, Tanker 135
Tanker 135, a C-119 Tanker 135, a C-119
Tanker 135, a C-119 Tanker 135, a C-119
Tanker 135, a C-119 Tanker 135, a C-119
Tanker 135, a C-119 Tanker 135, a C-119

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Contributors to this article: Tom Stein-Janney, Viejo

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