- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — A National Transportation Safety Board investigator on Tuesday arrived at the scene of a deadly air tanker crash in Utah and began scouring the 600-yard debris field for clues about why the plane went down while battling a wildfire.

The investigator was expected to spend much of the day at the remote site in a canyon of southwestern Utah, NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell on Tuesday surveyed the burn scar being left by a massive blaze in southwestern New Mexico that has developed into the largest wildfire burning in the nation.

He took an aerial tour of the fire, which has scorched more than 404 square miles since being sparked by lightning about three weeks ago. The blaze became the largest in recorded New Mexico history after making daily runs across tens of thousands of acres in strong winds.

Tidwell was expected to discuss Utah’s fatal air tanker crash during a news conference later in the day at the U.S. Forest Service’s regional headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M.

The Lockheed P2V crashed Sunday, killing two pilots — the same day another firefighting plane of the same vintage was forced to make a crash landing at Minden-Tahoe Airport in Nevada.

Worrell said another NTSB investigator is inspecting that P2V’s landing gear. A videotape shows the plane dropping to its belly and sliding across a runway. No one was injured.

NTSB investigator Van McKenny said authorities analyzing the Utah crash will consider all potential causes, including weather, mechanical failure and pilot error.

“It will all really depend on what we see, evidence on the ground,” he said.

The tanker went down while battling a lightning-sparked wildfire that jumped the Nevada border about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said it appeared a wing tip hit the ground in a rocky canyon. The plane practically disintegrated, killing both pilots aboard.

Firefighters said they didn’t expect full containment of the 8,000-acre blaze burning over rolling hills of pine, juniper and cheat grass until Sunday.

In southern New Mexico, firefighters were building fire lines and conducting more burnout operations to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire from making any aggressive runs along its boundaries. That way, crews could control the severity of the burn, fire information officer Gerry Perry said.

“We still have active fire within the perimeter, but they’re a little more comfortable that they’ve got a handle on it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the fire is over, but things are looking better.”

The tanker that crashed in Utah was owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont. It was built in 1962, according to federal aviation records, but had been modified to fight fires and was among only a handful of air tankers available nationwide. The other P2V was owned by Minden Air Corp. in Minden, Nev.

Neptune released a statement Monday afternoon that said it would not comment on accident specifics, but noted the aircraft “made contact with the ground while flying in the active fire drop zone.”

The company temporarily grounded its fleet to debrief crewmembers and mechanics, but all of the company’s air tankers have been returned to active duty, the statement said.

Authorities identified the pilots as Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, Idaho.

Tompkins’ wife Cassandra Cannon said her husband had flown air tankers for 17 years and believed the work he did was meaningful and impacted the safety of others. She said Tompkins was dispatched to the wildfire Sunday and immediately began flyovers.

Associated Press writer Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., and Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report. Sonner reported from Reno, Nev.