Incident Name: Big Elk Meadows Fire near Lyons, CO

Date: 7/18/2002, 1845 hours
Personnel: 2 lives lost
Agency/Organization: Hawkins & Powers Aviation under contract to the US Forest Service

Rick Schwartz, pilot, age 57
Milt Stollak, pilot, age 56

Pilots Schwartz and Stollak were operating Air Tanker 123, an aircraft carrying 2,000 gallons of agent and 550 gallons of fuel. They were in the process of performing a fire retardant drop on the Big Elk fire near Lyons, Colorado. The plane had flown 7 previous air attack missions during the day. During the approach for an eighth drop, the left wing of the aircraft separated from the fuselage. Fire began as the wing separated, and the aircraft pitched nose down until it crashed into the terrain. Both pilots were killed in the crash. The aircraft involved in this crash was a World War II era PB4Y-2 Privateer which had originally been used as a military aircraft.  (from the summary sent in to the USFA Memorial Database)

In December of 2002, the United States Forest Service permanently grounded all PB4Y-2 aircraft in its fleet, as well as all C-130A aircraft — 33 aircraft in all. A C-130A had been involved in a fatal structure-failure crash earlier in the summer, and prior to that a C-130A had crashed in 1994. and in France in 2000.

Milt StollakRick Schwartz & Milt StollakTanker 123Tanker 123

Tanker 123Tanker 123

Tanker 123


Approximate Accident Location: “near the Lyons Park Gulch trailhead, within 200 yards of Highway 36, 2 miles north of Pinewood Springs, and 1 mile north of the fire”

{mosmap lat=’40.308363’|lon=’-105.359298’|marker=’0’|text=’Approximate Accident Location’}


The airplane wreckage was located in four areas contained within a heavily wooded valley, approximately 6 miles southeast of Estes Park, Colorado, and in the vicinity of mile marker 8, marking a ½ mile long northwest to southeast-running segment of U. S. Highway 36. All four areas of aircraft wreckage rested along a predominately 210-degree heading.

The first area of airplane wreckage was located on the northeast side of U. S. Highway 36, and consisted of a debris field that spanned a 450-foot wide by 570-foot long area of the ridge. The debris field contained parts of hydraulic lines, oil lines, fuel tank baffling, rubber clamps, cowling pieces from the number 1 engine, and small pieces of rubber and metal. Traces of oil and hydraulic fluid were observed on vegetation within the debris field.

The second area that contained airplane wreckage was located approximately 270 feet from the south edge of the highway. The area consisted of the two sections of the airplane’s left wing, the number 2 engine, and number 2 propeller.

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Concise Information from NTSB, FAA, USFS, AAP, WLF Staff research:
    • July 18, 2002 – Tanker 123
    • 2 killed: Rick Schwartz, Milt Stollak
    • Operator: Hawkins & Powers Aviation
    • Type: Consolidated PB4Y-2 Super Privateer
    • collision with terrain near Estes Park, CO
    • FAA Registration #N7620C
    • NTSB # DEN02GA074
  • Forest Service Investigations – Fatal Aviation Accident History (1979-2000): Pages 39-41 for this incident (402 K pdf) | Entire History (download 4.72 MB pdf)
  • National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB): Factual Report (120 K pdf)
  • National Transportation Safety Board: Probable Cause | Probable Cause (26 K pdf)The airplane was maneuvering to deliver fire retardant when its left wing separated. Aircraft control was lost and the airplane crashed into mountainous terrain. A witness on the ground took a series of photographs that showed the airtanker’s left wing separating at the wing root and the remaining airplane entering a 45-degree dive to the ground in a counterclockwise roll. An examination of the airplane wreckage revealed extensive areas of preexisting fatigue in the left wing’s forward spar lower spar cap, the adjacent spar web, and the adjacent area of the lower wing skin. The portion of the wing containing the fatigue crack was obscured by the retardant tanks and would not have been detectable by an exterior visual inspection. An examination of two other airtankers of the same make and model revealed the area where the failure occurred on the accident airplane was in a location masked by the airplane’s fuselage construction. The airplane was manufactured in 1945 and was in military service until 1956. It was not designed with the intention of operating as a firefighting airplane. In 1958, the airplane was converted to civilian use as an airtanker and served in that capacity until the time of the accident. The investigation revealed that the owner developed service and inspection procedures for the airtanker; however, the information contained in the procedures did not adequately describe where and how to inspect for critical fatigue cracks. The procedures were based on U.S Navy PB4Y-2 airplane structural repair manuals that had not been revised since 1948.

    The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows: the inflight failure of the left wing due to fatigue cracking in the left wing’s forward spar and wing skin. A factor contributing to the accident was inadequate maintenance procedures to detect fatigue cracking.

  • Selections from AAR for the Tanker 123 Crash: Power Point (xx MB)*
  • US Forest Service Heroes Memorial: Rick Schwartz | Milt Stollak
  • USFA Database: Rick Schwartz | Milt Stollak
  • For more information on this crash visit the NTSB Query: # DEN02GA074
  • Following this crash and the crash of T-130 and the re-investigation of the 1994 crash of Tanker 82 for wing separation issues due to fatigue, the USFS and BLM created an independent Blue Ribbon Panel on Aerial Firefighting “to investigate issues associated with aerial wildland firefighting in the US.” The report was released March 26, 2003 with eight findings:

    “…critical for planning a safe and effective fire aviation program. The Report identified various concerns about aircraft safety, including the airworthiness of aircraft that were operating outside of their original intended design and the appropriate levels of maintenance and training to ensure safe operations. The report also identified a lack of training in contemporary aviation management areas that has contributed to an unacceptable accident rate.”

    After the release of Blue Ribbon Panel Report recommendations, the FS and BLM took the following actions. They…

    1. did not renew the contracts on 9 C-130A and PB4Y-2 air tankers
    2. suspended the 33 remaining large airtankers, requiring them to undergo an improved inspection program that took into consideration the airplane’s original design, age, operational stresses, and provided engineering evaluations — to predict and prevent fatigue cracking — before they returned to active service. Sandia National Labs was contracted to analyze whether the the Douglas DC series (DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7), the P-3 Orion and the P-2 Neptune were safe to operate as air tankers.
    3. retired 11 of 19 Beechcraft Baron P58 lead planes.
    4. directed that air tankers were only to be used on initial attack.

    On May 10, 2004 with continuing serious concerns regarding how to insure airworthiness, the FS and BLM terminated contracts for the entire large air tanker fleet.

  • Aviation Safety Network: N7620C
  • And it goes on… but the tragic accidents of 2002 forever changed the way aerial firefighting is conducted.

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Media Articles and Reports.

  •, Pulitzer Prize photo winners, 2003 for their wildfire coverageTanker 123
  • Responses…Tanker 123
  • 2 Killed When Air Tanker Fighting Big Elk Fire Crashes: Air Tankers Across The West Grounded7/18/02 | Online Article

    Pinewood Springs, Colo — One of three air tankers battling the Big Elk Fire crashed Thursday night, killing two crew members. Their identities have not been released but colleagues say both have families.

    The four-engine plane (pictured, left) went down about 6:45 p.m. near the Lyons Park Gulch trailhead, within 200 yards of Highway 36, 2 miles north of Pinewood Springs, and 1 mile north of the fire, 7NEWS reported.

    It had been circling over the eastern flank of the Big Elk Fire, and made a couple of practice runs when it appeared to blow up in midair. “When it came out, it is was really low and was I was like, ‘Here he comes, he’s gonna come in.’ And at about that time, the wings folded off of it, the fuselage busted in half, and exploded in midair,”… (Much more at the link…)

  • Plane In Previous Crash Owned By Same Company; Widow Of Pilot Blasted Forest Service Over Airworthiness Of Plane7/18/02 | Online Article (no longer online)
  • Fallen Airtanker Pilots Remembered, Family, Friends, C0-workers attend Service7/24/2002 | Online article

    The U.S. Forest Service held a memorial service Thursday for the two pilots who died fighting the Big Elk Fire between Lyons and Estes Park, Colo.

    Pilots Rick Schwartz, 39, and Milt Stollack, 56 (pictured, left), were flying a 57-year-old PB4Y-2 Privateer firefighting tanker when a left wing tore off and the plane exploded in midair before it crashed into the mountainside last Thursday.

    The service took place at the Jefferson County Airport tanker base where the pilots refueled each day while they were fighting the fire… (more at the link)

  • Colorado Air Tanker Crash Lawsuit Dismissal Sought; Firefighting Pilots Died While Battling Big Elk Fire Near Estes Park1/6/2006 | Online article

    The lawsuit was brought in 2004 by relatives of the two men killed when a wing of one of the company’s air tankers snapped off while fighting the 1,200-acre Big Elk Fire near Estes Park, Colo. Pilot Rick Schwartz of Ulm, Mont., and co-pilot Milton Stollak of Cathedral City, Calif., died in the July 18, 2002, crash.

    The suit names the company, Hawkins & Powers employees and a host of others and claims, among other things, negligence and wrongful death. The families seek unspecified damages.

    On Thursday, attorneys asked Chief U.S. District Judge William Downes either to dismiss the entire case or to drop certain defendants, such as the U.S. Forest Service, from the matter. An attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice said the Forest Service, which contracted with Hawkins & Powers for use of the air tanker in fighting wildfires, had no obligation to supervise the plane’s maintenance … (more at the link)

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • Photos from the Memorial Fence at Jeffco Tanker Base and from Rick and Milt’s Memorial Service (originally from an Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest Website, no longer available on the new FS server):”Deepest Sympathy to the families of the pilots of T-123, the crews and Support Staff of Jeffco Tanker Base… From all the employees of Fort Collins Dispatch, Expanded Dispatch and Rocky Mountain Research Station”

    Tanker 123 fence flowers

    Tanker 123 MemorialTanker 123Memorial Card

  • Memorial location in Broomfield, CO{mosmap lat=’39.909867’|lon=’-105.110550’|marker=’0’|text=’Memorial location in Broomfield, CO’}
  • Memorial Plaque at Broomfield, COMemorial Plaque
  • Black Irish Band — Patrick Michael Karnahan’s band — wrote a song: “The Last Flight of 123”
  • The Video Tribute to Tanker 123 features the Black Irish Band Ballad along with images from a variety of sources, including the firefighting community at

    “This is my first video” (created by Milt Stollak’s offspring)

    On July 18th, 2002 Tanker 123 crashed, signaling the end of the world war two era four engine airtankers, and the end of Hawkins and Powers as one of the biggest air tanker companies in the US.

  • Patrick Michael Karnahan, wildland firefighter and artist, did a painting in remembrance of our loss.

Tanker 123 Tribute by Michael Karnahan

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Contributors to this article: Patrick Michael Karnahan, Jim Felix, John Miller, Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests, and many other wildland and aerial firefighters.

Please support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation



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