Inquest finds inadequate inspection contributed to fatal air tanker crash

A coroner’s inquest found that an inadequate inspection contributed to the crash of an air tanker in New South Wales, Australia.

Dromader M-18 air tanker
File photo of Dromader M-18. Photo by Ted Quackenbush.

David Black, 43, died when his M18 Dromader single engine air tanker crashed while fighting a fire at Wirritin in Budawang National Park, 40 kilometers west of Ulladulla, October 24, 2013 when a wing snapped off the aircraft as it was approaching the fire. The crash started another bushfire which, along with high winds, hampered efforts to reach the pilot.

Below is an excerpt from an article at 9news:

[The aircraft] was tested and inspected just over two months earlier by two companies, Aviation NDT and Beal Aircraft Maintenance, but [Deputy State Coroner Derek] Lee said the work was inadequately done.

He wrote in his findings that testing by Aviation NDT used an unauthorised method and did not comply with the mandatory requirements of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Further, the plane’s wings were not removed during a visual inspection by Beal Aircraft Maintenance, meaning that corrosion and cracking on one of the left wing’s attachment lugs was not detected.

By the time Mr Black crashed in October, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that cracking on the inner surface of the lug had reached a critical length of 10.4 millimetres and at least 32 secondary micro cracks were also identified.

The engineer behind the visual inspection, Donald Beal, told the inquest the manufacturer’s service bulletin did not mandate removal of the wings, so he didn’t see any need to remove them.

Mr Beal also said there was ambiguity about what visual inspections actually involved, Mr Lee recalled in his findings.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.
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Interview with Jim Fournier, air tanker pilot

Jim Fournier of New Frontier Aviation flies a Dromader single engine air tanker (SEAT) for the state of South Dakota. On September 1, 2015 we caught up with him at the SEAT base in Hot Springs a couple of hours after he dropped a load of retardant on the Bitter Creek Fire which enabled the firefighters on the ground to tie in the last piece of open fireline, stopping it at 87 acres. Tanker 455 put one 550-gallon load on the fire, split into two drops.

Bitter Creek Fire
Bitter Creek Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
T-455 Bitter Creek Fire
Tanker 455 orbits, sizing up the Bitter Creek fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
T-455 Bitter Creek Fire
Tanker 455 descending on final to make a drop on the Bitter Creek Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert..
T-455 Bitter Creek Fire
Tanker 455 completing a drop on the Bitter Creek Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
T-455, Dromader
Tanker 455, a Dromader. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
T-455, Dromader
Jim Fournier with Tanker 455, a Dromader. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

SEATs in Nebraska and South Dakota to start later than normal due to green conditions

Wind Cave National Park
The High Bridge over Beaver Creek in Wind Cave National Park, June 13, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) in South Dakota and Nebraska will have later starting dates than usual due to the abundance of moisture and very green herbaceous vegetation, as you can see by this photo taken in Wind Cave National Park a week ago.

For the last year or two South Dakota has brought on a contract SEAT July 1 but Jim Strain, the Chief Fire Management Officer for South Dakota’s Division of Wildland Fire, told us that it will start sometime after that, depending on how quickly things dry out. In 2012 they had a SEAT working out of Hot Springs in March. But, he said, this year it will definitely be on board before the start of the Sturgis motorcycle rally the first week of August. That event brings HUGE numbers of visitors to the Black Hills, and this year’s gathering is expected be larger than normal, since it is the 75th annual rally.

The Nebraska SEAT usually is based at Chadron, but the runway at the airport is being resurfaced this summer, so this year it will be either at Alliance or Valentine starting July 15.

SEAT hot springs
Tanker 466, a Dromader, at Hot Springs, South Dakota, March 14, 2012, operated by New Frontier Aviation. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

SEATs at Chester

Chester air attack base sign

Yesterday we stopped by the air tanker base at Chester, California where Terry Grecian, the manager, was kind enough to allow us out on the ramp to talk with one of the pilots.

Since it rained heavily a couple of days ago it has been less hectic at Chester. Earlier in the week they had Single Engine Air Tankers, Large Air Tankers, and several helicopters working out of the airport. On Wednesday there were just two SEATs and one Type 2 helicopter parked there.

Pilot Fred Celest and air tanker 873
Pilot Fred Celest and air tanker 873 at Chester, Calif. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Fred Celest is the pilot for Tanker 873, an Air Tractor 802-F. He has previously flown crop dusters, private jets and P2V air tankers. He likes flying air tankers better than corporate jets, he said, because with air tankers he travels less. While talking with him we detected a bit of an accent, and it turns out that he is French and German, but is a United States citizen.

Mr. Celest felt it was important to point out that the 800-gallon aircraft has a 1,650 HP Garrett-14 engine. The air tanker is under contract through New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana. The company also operates 550-gallon M-18 Dromader SEATs.

After crash, Dromaders grounded in Australia

Six days after the crash of a Dromader single engine air tanker that killed pilot David Black, government investigators have reached the crash site. Firefighters built a helispot in the steep, rugged terrain, but strong winds prevented helicopters from flying the investigators into the area.

Below is an excerpt from the Guardian:

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“…Seven other models of the same fixed-wing aircraft were grounded on Wednesday by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority as a precaution.

David Black, 43, died when his Dromader aircraft crashed in Budawang national park, 40 kilometres west of Ulladulla, about 10am on Thursday.

A witness saw one of the plane’s wings fall off before the aircraft plummeted.

Fire risks and rough terrain meant investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found it difficult to reach the crash site but on Wednesday a team of four got there.

“Rural fire service teams had completed clearing a helicopter landing site nearby. However, the site has not been accessible until today due to ongoing high winds,” a bureau spokesman said.

On the same day a Casa spokesman, Peter Gibson, announced that seven Dromaders had been grounded.

“It’s a precaution to make sure there aren’t any problems with the wings or other structures on the aircraft,” he said.

The aircraft were used for crop dusting in NSW and Queensland, Gibson said, and could be contracted for water bombing.

In April the bureau released a report after investigations into three fatal incidents involving Dromader aircraft.

On each occasion the aircraft were carrying increased weight and the bureau found associated safety risks, despite approval being granted for operation at takeoff weights of more than 4200kg.

The report outlined operating limitations under higher loads and recommended increased awareness among pilots.”

Two aircraft crashes in Australia connected to bushfires

Dromader M-18 air tanker
File photo of Dromader M-18 in Prineville, Oregon. Photo by Ted Quackenbush.

Two pilots were killed in Australia Wednesday and Thursday in separate crashes while they were fighting or supporting bushfires in New South Wales.

On Wednesday Peter Brereton, 60, was killed when his light plane crashed on his way back from dropping off spare parts for a helicopter used in the fire fighting efforts on the south coast of NSW October 23, 2013. After he did not return as expected a search located the wreckage Thursday morning in rugged terrain near Mt Hotham in Victoria. Eight helicopters and two fixed wing planes were involved in the search for the Cessna. He had recently retired from the Country Fire Authority as an Operations Officer for District 22 that covers Shepparton.

David Black, 43, died when his Dromader single engine air tanker crashed while fighting a fire at Wirritin in Budawang National Park, 40 kilometers west of Ulladulla, around 10 a.m. on October 24, 2013.  The Australian network ABC reported that a wing snapped off the aircraft before it went down. The crash started another bushfire which, along with high winds, was hampering efforts to reach the pilot. Other firefighting aircraft were called to the area and were attempting to slow the spread of the fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families and coworkers of both pilots.