SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California firefighting aircraft that crashed into a canyon wall in Yosemite National Park last week, killing the pilot, might have struck a tree as it approached a wildfire, tearing off a wing, federal investigators said Wednesday.
The twin-engine S-2T air tanker was destroyed when it hit the ground and by a subsequent fire, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report on the Oct. 7 crash.
A more complete investigation is ongoing and is expected to take months.
Veteran pilot Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt, the plane's sole crew member, was following another aircraft on his final approach as he prepared for his second run dropping 1,200 gallons of chemical retardant on a fire climbing a steep canyon wall near the park's west entrance.
A third plane flew overhead, directing the firefighting efforts.
"The crew of the controller airplane reported that the accident airplane may have struck a tree with its wing, which separated from the airplane," according the five-paragraph report. "Both aircrews reported that there was smoke in the area, but visibility was good."
Authorities previously said the aircraft's left wing was found at the beginning of a roughly quarter-mile-long debris field.
Their investigation was complicated because of the wildfire that eventually burned more than 300 acres, cutting off electricity and the main roadway into Yosemite Valley for days.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's remaining 22 air tankers were grounded for two days during the height of the wildfire season, until investigators were satisfied that the deadly crash was not a result of faulty equipment that could affect the rest of the aging fleet.