Preliminary report released for fatal helicopter accident near Coalinga

The UH-1H crashed August 19, 2020

Flight path of UH-1H from the NTSB preliminary report
Flight path and pilot statements from the NTSB preliminary report.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the August 19, 2020 helicopter crash in which pilot Mike Fournier, 52, was killed. He was the only person on board.

The Bell UH-1H helicopter, N711GH, crashed while on a water dropping mission on the Hills Fire, approximately 9 miles south of the City of Coalinga. It was operated by Guardian Helicopters out of Van Nuys, California on a CAL FIRE contract.

The early evidence from the NTSB indicates there was a problem with the hydraulics, based on radio communications from the pilot moments before the accident.

The Associated Press reported that Mr. Fournier’s wife and two daughters filed suit against the helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that serviced it. Both were accused of negligence and wrongful death in the suit that seeks unspecified damages.

Below is the complete text from the narrative section of the NTSB preliminary report (Accident #WPR20LA280). It will be months before the agency completes and releases the final report which may come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.

“On August 19, 2020 about 0945 Pacific daylight time, an Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc. UH-1H, N711GH, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Coalinga, California. The pilot, the sole occupant was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a public use firefighting flight.

“The accident flight was the pilot’s first day working the Hills Fire, which had started four days prior. The pilot departed at 0846 followed by another pilot that was flying a Bell 212 helicopter for another operator.

“Investigators reviewed flight track data covering the area of the accident during the time surrounding the accident. Additionally, the Bell 212 pilot had an app recording his track that he provided to investigators. After departure, both helicopters flew south until reaching a small lake/reservoir (the dip site) to fill up the external load buckets attached to their respective helicopters (bambi buckets). Thereafter, they flew to a predetermined areas and began to unload their water on the fire. After releasing the water, they would return back to the dip site. After the accident pilot delivered about two buckets of water to a division he moved to another division delivering about five buckets of water.

“The Bell 212 pilot recalled that after he departed the dip site with a bucket of water, he heard the accident pilot communicate over the air-to-air radio that he felt “abnormal noises and vibrations” and that he was going to make a precautionary landing. The Bell 212 pilot dumped his water and then caught up to the accident helicopter with the intention of assisting the pilot find a good area to land; he remained a few hundred feet behind and above the accident helicopter. The accident helicopter was about a 1,000 ft above ground level (agl) and maneuvering at an airspeed between 60 to 70 kts. The accident pilot then stated that the helicopter’s “temps and pressures are good.” A few seconds later the accident pilot stated “it’s my hydraulics.” (See Picture 1 below). The Bell 212 pilot relayed that that he should make a right turn and fly down the ravine to less mountainous terrain (the flats).

“The helicopter started to make a right turn and then banked back to the left while losing airspeed. The Bell 212 pilot noticed the helicopter still had its 100 ft longline and bambi bucket attached and told the accident pilot to “release your long line and get forward airspeed,” The accident pilot then stated “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” The left turn steepened remaining in a level pitch attitude, and the helicopter began to make three or four 360° rotations (rapidly swapping the front and back), while drifting north-east. The helicopter then pitched in a nose-low, near vertical attitude and collided into terrain. (See Picture 2 below). A fire immediately erupted and the Bell 212 pilot made multiple trips to the dip site to fill his bucket and drop water on the accident site.

“The helicopter came to rest on a 35° slope with the main wreckage about 25 yards downslope from the initial impact. A majority of the wreckage was consumed by fire; the tail rotor assembly was intact. The tail rotor blades were intact, with no evidence of rotational scoring. The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further investigation.”

(end of NTSB report)

N711GH Guardian Helicopters
File photo of N711GH. Guardian Helicopters photo.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

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

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4 thoughts on “Preliminary report released for fatal helicopter accident near Coalinga”

  1. “During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020”

    This is utterly outrageous and it cannot be allowed to continue. Leadership at BLM, USFS and Cal Fire need to be FIRED and we need to go back to the drawing board on why/when we engage fires where there are no values at risk.

  2. One of the best ways to minimize accidents is to mitigate the risk. Reduce aviation use to only necessary missions, and keep aircraft on the ground when not needed. I see aircraft being used all the time to mop up or used to drop water where it’s not needed. Please do your part to mitigate risk by minimizing the use of aircraft.

    1. Bob: Fired for what exactly?

      Jeff: “Reduce aviation use to only necessary missions.” Sounds good. Are you saying that was not the case with the Hills fire and crash?

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