“24-hour” briefing for off-runway excursion at Grass Valley, CA

On October 7, 2014 Laurence Crabtree, the Forest Supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest, issued a “Preliminary (24-hour) Briefing” about the air attack aircraft that ended up off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California three days earlier. The document has very little information:

Aero Commander 690B veered off the runway at approximately 1343 hours. The ship had been performing an aerial supervision mission on the King Fire, located on the Eldorado National Forest. There were three people onboard, the pilot, an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) and an ATGS trainee. The National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) classified this event as an accident on October 6, 2014 at 10:00 AM. The Forest Service has assigned an investigation team to work in collaboration with the NTSB.

It is obvious that the USFS can’t say a lot about the official cause of an accident three days after the incident, but in a document that took three days to prepare, many people would appreciate a little more information, including indisputable facts such as injuries, the weather, obvious mechanical malfunctions such as a blown tire or collapsed landing gear, or did it occur on takeoff, landing, or taxiing.

NTSB has tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as cause of T-81 crash

CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott
CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott addresses the media on October 10, 2014, concerning the status of the investigation into the crash of Tanker 81 on October 7. On the left in the white shirt is NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra. Over Director Pimlott’s right shoulder is CAL FIRE Chief Pilot Bill Payne.

In a press conference on Friday an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said they have tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as the primary cause of the October 7 crash of the air tanker on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California.

Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when the S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the fire.

NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra said that while it is early in the investigation which will take six to eight months to complete, mechanical or fatigue issues do not appear to be factors in the crash. In addition, he said they have received no reports of turbulence in the drop area. They expect to have a preliminary report available on the NTSB website within about five days.

The investigators began by conducting an aerial recon over the crash site to become familiar with the very steep terrain and the extent of the debris field. After the fire activity had diminished, they documented it from the ground.

The team has completed the on-scene portion of the investigation but they still need to recover, reconstruct, and examine some portions of the wreckage which are scattered over an area about 1/4 mile long. There is still some active fire in the area, and they will be working with CAL FIRE and the National Park Service to remove the aircraft parts after the fire has cooled down.

The investigators will be looking at “man, machine, and the environment”, Mr. Cathra said, and:

This accident is extremely tragic. We have a community that was threatened by a wildland fire, there were evacuations being done. These pilots put their life on the line. They were out there in a very — it’s a controlled environment, but yet there is also an amount of risk. And it is something that affects everybody as a whole. We get to know these pilots as well throughout the year. Our primary mission with the NTSB is to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent this from ever occurring again.

Director Ken Pimlott said beginning today, Friday, CAL FIRE will start transitioning their tanker pilots back into their aircraft, after having been grounded since immediately after the accident. Each of them will be evaluated, but some, he said, will require more time to deal with the tragedy than others.

He recognized and thanked the U.S. Forest Service for providing air tankers to cover the state of California while the 22 remaining S-2Ts were not available. Providing that coverage was made less complicated by the lack of wildfire activity in the rest of the United States.

In the video of the press conference below, the people you will see, in the order of  appearance, are:

  1. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer
  2. Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE Director
  3. Josh Cawthra, NTSB Investigator
  4. Bill Payne, CAL FIRE Chief Pilot, and
  5. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer

FAA releases preliminary cause of S-2T crash

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. Image courtesy of Mr. Hunt’s family.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s web site lists the preliminary cause of the crash of Tanker 81, an S-2T, as a “wing striking a tree”. That is consistent with information we have from witnesses of the accident.

The Fresno Bee reported that Keith Halloway, a spokesman for NTSB which is the lead investigating agency, said Wednesday evening that the board may have a preliminary report next week, but determining a probable cause for the crash could take 12 to 18 months.

The pilot of the S-2T that died in the air tanker crash on October 7 was Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, age 62, of San Jose. He was a 13-year veteran pilot with DynCorp International which has the contract to maintain and operate the 23 S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE. Mr. Hunt was attempting to drop retardant on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California when the accident occurred.

More information:

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. Photo courtesy of Mr. Hunt’s family.

Pilot in Yosemite crash identified

crash site
The crash site a few minutes after impact. Much of the wreckage fell down the rock face, with some of it landing on the highway below. Photo by Ken Yager.

The pilot of the S-2T that died in the air tanker crash on October 7 has been identified as Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, age 62, of San Jose. He was a 13 year veteran pilot with DynCorp International. DynCorp has the contract to maintain and operate the 23 S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE. Mr. Hunt was attempting to drop retardant on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California when the accident occurred.

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt.
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt.

“We continue to mourn the tragic loss of Craig,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director. “We know wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, but Craig made the ultimate sacrifice.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Craig’s family during this difficult time,” said Jeff Cavarra, program director for DynCorp.

Mr. Hunt’s body was watched over Tuesday night by fire and rescue personnel and was recovered Wednesday morning. A National Park Service honor guard then transferred Mr. Hunt to CAL FIRE personnel.

Immediately after the crash, CAL FIRE grounded their remaining air tankers, which is standard procedure after a serious accident.

A graphic photo of the flaming wreckage falling down the steep slope has been posted at a rock climbing forum.

The S-2T air tanker, registration number N449DF, was designated Tanker 81, one of 23 S-2Ts that are maintained and flown by DynCorp for CAL FIRE. The agency also has one spare that is used to fill in as needed when an aircraft is undergoing maintenance. CAL FIRE hires their own pilots for their 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters, but they are also maintained by DynCorp.

The last time a CAL FIRE air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, Daniel Berlant, spokesperson for CAL FIRE said.

The agency had another plane crash in 2006, when a battalion chief and a pilot were killed in the crash of an air attack plane in Tulare County.

The S-2 first flew in 1952 and the U.S. Navy discontinued the use of them in 1976. They were used for detecting enemy ships and submarines and for dropping torpedoes. The ones currently being used by CAL FIRE were converted from piston to turbine engines between 1999 and 2005. Some media outlets are incorrectly reporting that the Tanker that crashed on Tuesday was built in 2001. That may be the date that it was converted to turbine engines and was given the new model name S-2F3 Turbo Tracker. They are now commonly referred to as S-2T, with the “T” standing for turbine engine.

More information about the crash and the Dog Rock Fire is at Wildfire Today.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of Mr. Hunt.

S-2T crashes while fighting Yosemite fire

CAL FIRE has announced that an S-2T air tanker has crashed while fighting the Dog Rock Fire in Yosemite National Park in California. There is no word yet about the condition of the pilot. Emergency personnel are hiking to the crash site.

More information is at Wildfire Today.

Air attack plane goes off the runway at Grass Valley, CA

N700PQ Rockwell International 690B
File photo of N700PQ, a Rockwell International 690B. Flightaware photo.

The Union is reporting that an air attack plane went off the runway Saturday, October 4 at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California (map). There were no reports of injuries or serious damage.

Photos at The Union show that the aircraft is Air Attack 17, N700PQ, a Rockwell International 690B. It is registered to Rogers Helicopters out of Fresno, California.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave.

Southern California adds to its helicopter fleet

San Diego County will be adding a third firefighting helicopter to their fleet, implementing one of the recommendations in a report on the 14 fires that broke out in May in the northern part of the county. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday allocated $5.2 million for another helicopter to become part of the County Sheriff’s stable of aircraft.

Photo by San Diego County.

The Supervisors also approved contracting with the city of San Diego to use its night-flying helicopters for fighting fires or making rescues at night.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s office Astrea unit (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies) currently operates the following helicopters:

  • One MD500D. This is the oldest in the fleet, the workhorse of ASTREA since the late 1980s. The “D” model will eventually be replaced with a more powerful helicopter.
  • Three MD500F, better suited for high altitude and high temperatures than the MD500D.
  • Two Bell 205 A1++, for fire and rescue
  • One Bell 407 equipped with a data-link antenna and associated hardware which makes it possible to pass a live video feed to ground personnel. It  is also equipped with a FLIR 8500 thermal imager with laser designator.

Helicopter pilot honored for assisting entrapped fire crew

Gary Dahlen award

A helicopter pilot was honored Tuesday for assisting a hand crew that deployed fire shelters on the King Fire east of Placerville, California. This is the way it was described on CAL FIRE’s Facebook page:

Pilot Gray Dahlen received an award from the USFS, for his heroic actions on the King Fire. The pilot rescued a CAL FIRE Hand Crew and a CAL FIRE Dozer Operator from harm’s way.

The hand crew and dozer operator were constructing fire line when they were overrun by the fire. The pilot flew down to a lower level to direct the hand crew and dozer operator down a road. Once Pilot Dahlen found an open area to land he and another helicopter pilot landed and flew the crew out to a safe area.

These photos that accompanied the brief report did not have any descriptions, nor were the individuals in the photos identified. (Very unprofessional, CAL FIRE.)

We listened to the live radio traffic during the incident-within-an-incident on September 15 and live blogged about it as the emergency developed. Later we found out that the crew was a CAL FIRE inmate crew.

Below is an excerpt from our live reporting that day:

At 1:27 we wrote:

At about 1 p.m. PDT on Monday there was a fire shelter deployment on the King Fire, which is burning 11 miles east of Placerville, California north of the community of Pollock Pines. In listening to the radio traffic, a Division Supervisor talking to Air Attack said a Task Force was overrun by fire — they were in a safety zone, but they were safe. He requested air support, but there was too much smoke for fixed wing air tankers to get in to the area.

Air Attack, as of 1:15 p.m. PDT was checking to see if helicopters could work the area, but when the incident unfolded they were all on the ground getting fuel. Later at about 1:25 p.m. PDT at least one helicopter with water was over the incident watching firefighters running, carrying fire shelters. The pilot was holding on to his water in case there was a major need for it later. He was giving the firefighters directions, saying “keep moving”.

One alternative considered was to extract the firefighters using a water bucket carried by a helicopter.

Someone else on the fire said they had five vehicles that were available to rescue the trapped firefighters, but the road to the area had just been overrun by a very intense fire and they were advised by a pilot to not try it.

There was also a report on the radio of a dozer that burned up, but there was “accountability for the operator”.

We continued providing live updates until the crew had been extracted by helicopters.

After the above, most of the radio communications we heard that was with the hand crew, was from the Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO). Only rarely could we hear the crew on the ground. The HLCO was escorting the crew as they ran and walked to a safe area, giving them frequent encouragement and directions about where to go. He arranged for drinking water to be delivered to the crew before they reached a spot where they could be extracted by helicopters.

From the first report of the emergency until they were in the helicopters, about two hours elapsed.

Gary Dahlen award

Helicopter King Fire