Report released on crash of firefighting helicopter in Queensland

The Bell 214B crashed while on a water-dropping mission Nov. 13, 2019

B214 helicopter crash Queensland November 13 2019
Bell 214, Queensland, Australia, November 13, 2020. Photo by operator.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released an Occurrence Brief regarding the Bell 214B that crashed while it was on a water dropping mission near Pechey, Queensland, Australia November 13, 2019.

The pilot suffered minor injuries and was flown to a hospital by another helicopter.

Below is the complete text of the Brief. (We added the photo taken by 9News):


Occurrence Briefs are concise reports that detail the facts surrounding a transport safety occurrence, as received in the initial notification and any follow-up enquiries. They provide an opportunity to share safety messages in the absence of an investigation.

What happened
On 13 November 2019, a Bell 214B helicopter was water bombing during fire control operations near Pechey, Queensland. At 1344 Eastern Standard Time, the helicopter approached the bushfire downwind and down hill from the north-west at about 60 knots, and made a descending right-hand turn back into wind over the fire.

The descent was continued towards the drop zone. The airspeed was further slowed and the height was reduced to about 150 feet above ground level (50 feet above treetop level). The pilot then released the load of water before departing the drop area into rising terrain. The pilot heard the low rotor RPM warning and had insufficient altitude and clearance from obstacles to recover the rotor RPM and continue flying. He was concerned that further actions required to recover the rotor RPM would result in the helicopter possibly striking trees or ending up in the actively burning fire.

Helicopter Down crash Queensland Australia
Bell 412B crashed while working on a fire near Pechey, Queensland, Australia November 13, 2019. Photo by 9News

In maintaining the climb to avoid rising ground, trees and fire, the rotor RPM appeared to decay further. As the helicopter cleared the trees, it began to descend, yawed to the right and the left-hand skid collided with the ground. The helicopter rolled onto its left side resulting in substantial damage. The pilot was able to turn off the fuel to stop the engine and exited the helicopter via the overhead window with minor injuries. Neither the g-force activated ELT beacon or flight tracking alarm were triggered.

The distance from the last water drop to the impact point was less than 100 metres and the recovered aircraft showed little evidence of damage from forward moment.

B214 helicopter crash Queensland November 13 2019
Bell 214, Queensland, Australia, November 13, 2020. Photo by operator.

Operator’s investigation and comments
Based on the pilot’s account of the accident and assessment of the recovered aircraft, mechanical malfunctions were ruled out as a contributing factor. The operator determined that the accident was most likely the result of a loss of rotor RPM that the pilot was unable to recover, due to a downwind descending turn, low altitude for the water drop, and a departure into rising terrain. The pilot had to make a decision between putting the helicopter into tall trees and active bushfire or climbing over the trees to clear ground. In choosing the latter, the rotor RPM decayed further and the helicopter contacted the ground.

The operator stated that the helicopter type is renowned for its ‘hot and high’ performance making it a very effective firefighting platform. Firefighting combines a number of factors which result in flying that is close to the performance limits of the aircraft – high gross weights, low airspeeds, low altitude, close quarters manoeuvring, high work rate environment and adverse weather conditions. In this case the combination of factors immediately leading up to the accident resulted in the helicopter operating outside its performance envelope without having enough space and height to recover.

Safety action
As a result of this occurrence, the aircraft operator has advised the ATSB that they are taking the following safety actions:

The operator has provided a briefing to all of their pilots on the circumstances and the outcome of this accident. The pilot involved in this accident will be involved in future training and checking to enable the recognition and avoidance of the circumstances that saw the limitations and flight envelope exceeded. This training will become part of the operator’s annual training for all pilots conducting fire control operations.

Safety message
Fire control flying operations can involve challenges and complexities that require crews to maintain a heightened awareness of their aircraft’s operating limits and the environmental conditions. Flying within operating limits can ensure pilots have a performance margin to react to unforeseen circumstances.

About this report
Decisions regarding whether to conduct an investigation, and the scope of an investigation, are based on many factors, including the level of safety benefit likely to be obtained from an investigation. For this occurrence, no investigation has been conducted and the ATSB did not verify the accuracy of the information. A brief description has been written using information supplied in the notification and any follow-up information in order to produce a short summary report, and allow for greater industry awareness of potential safety issues and possible safety actions.

Preliminary report released about crash of Air Tanker 134

The accident occurred January 23, 2020 in Australia

ATSB preliminary report crash Air Tanker 134 Australia
Figure 1: Flight path of N134CG (white). Source: Google Earth, Aireon and RFS tracking data, annotated by the ATSB.

Today the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released a preliminary report about the crash of Air Tanker 134, an EC-130Q, that occurred January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales. The location was 50 km north-east of Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport (near Peak View). All three members of the crew perished, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, Captain Ian H. McBeth, and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr.

Below is the complete text of the report.


Preliminary report published 28 February 2020

Sequence of events
On 23 January 2020, at about 1205 Eastern Daylight-saving Time,[1] a Lockheed EC130Q (C‑130) aircraft, registered N134CG and contracted to the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service, departed Richmond RAAF Base, NSW. The crew had been tasked with a fire retardant drop over the ‘Adaminaby Complex’ bush fire.

After approaching the Adaminaby complex fire, the drop was unable to be completed and the aircraft was diverted to a secondary tasking, to drop retardant on the ‘Good Good’ fire (Figure 1). Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft complete a number of circuits, prior to completing the retardant drop. The drop was conducted on a heading of about 190°, at about 200 ft above ground level, with a drop time of approximately 2 seconds. The crew released about 1,200 US gallons (4,500 L) of fire retardant during the drop.

Witness videos taken of the aircraft leading up to the accident showed a number of passes conducted at varying heights prior to the retardant drop. Following the retardant drop (Figure 2), the aircraft was observed to bank left, before becoming obscured by smoke[2] after about 5 seconds. A further 15 seconds after this, the aircraft was seen flying at a very low height above the ground, in a left wing down attitude. Shortly after, at about 1316, the aircraft collided with terrain and a post-impact fuel-fed fire ensued. The three crew were fatally injured and the aircraft was destroyed.

ATSB preliminary report crash Air Tanker 134 Australia
Figure 2: Overview of the drop zone (red fire retardant) and accident location. Source: ATSB

A review of the Airservices Australia audio recording of the applicable air traffic control frequency found no distress calls were made by the crew prior to the impact.

Wreckage and impact information
The accident site was located on slightly sloping, partially wooded terrain, about 50 km north-east of the Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport. The wreckage trail (Figure 3) was approximately on a heading of 100°, with the initial impact at an elevation of about 3,440 ft above mean sea level.

The ATSB’s on-site examination of the wreckage, damage to the surrounding vegetation, and ground markings indicated that the aircraft initially impacted a tree in a left wing down attitude, before colliding with the ground. The post-impact fuel-fed fire destroyed the aircraft. The examination also found that an emergency dump of the fire retardant had not been activated.

The engines, propellers, and several other components have been retained by the ATSB for further examination.

ATSB preliminary report crash Air Tanker 134 Australia
Figure 3: Aircraft impact and wreckage. Source: ATSB

Aircraft information
The Lockheed C-130 is predominantly an all-metal, high-wing aircraft, largely designed for military operations. The aircraft was manufactured in 1981 and was powered by four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines, fitted with Hamilton Sundstrand 54-H60-91 four blade propellers. Previously owned by the United States Navy, the aircraft was re-purposed for firefighting activities and registered as N134CG in 2018 (Figure 4). The modifications included the installation of an avionics package and firefighting tank system known as Retardant Aerial Delivery System XXL (RADS).

The RADS included a 4,000 US gallons (15,000 L) tank system located within the aircraft’s fuselage. The system was capable of delivering discrete quantities of retardant, dependent on the duration that the doors remained open. It was controlled from the cockpit, with drop controls located on both the pilot and copilot yokes. The system also included an emergency dump switch, which, when activated, fully opened the doors and jettisoned the load. The doors remained open until the RADS was reset by the crew.

N134CG arrived in Australia in November 2019, but had previously operated in the country during the 2018‑2019 fire season. The aircraft was designated as a ‘large air tanker’.

ATSB preliminary report crash Air Tanker 134 Australia
Figure 4: N134CG. Source: Coulson Aviation

Meteorological information
A Bureau of Meteorology graphical area forecast, issued at 0924 and valid for the time of the flight, forecast moderate mountain wave activity above 3,000 ft (above mean sea level) in the area of operation from Richmond to Cooma, and included the Adaminaby and Good Good fire grounds. A SIGMET[3] issued at 0947 forecast severe turbulence below 10,000 ft.

The aerodrome forecast for the Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport[4] was amended at 0948, and indicated wind speeds of 30 kt, gusting to 48 kt, with a mean wind direction of 320°. It also included blowing dust and visibility of 2,000 m, with severe turbulence below 5,000 ft above ground level.

The weather observations recorded at the airport about 11 minutes prior to the accident, indicated a wind speed of 25 kt, gusting to 39 kt, from a direction of 320°, with visibility reduced to 6,000 m.

Cockpit voice recorder
Cockpit voice recorders (CVR) are designed on an endless loop principle, where the oldest audio is continuously overwritten by the most recent audio. The CVR fitted to the aircraft was a Universal model CVR-30B, part number 1603-02-03, serial number 1541. This model of recorder used solid-state memory to record cockpit audio and had a recording duration of 30 minutes.

The CVR was recovered from the aircraft and transported to the ATSB’s technical facility in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, on 25 January 2020 for examination and download. The CVR was successfully downloaded, however, no audio from the accident flight had been recorded. All recovered audio was from a previous flight when the aircraft was operating in the United States.

Further investigation
The investigation is continuing and will include consideration of the following:

  • Engine, gearbox and propeller component examinations
  • Aircraft maintenance history
  • Aircraft performance and handling characteristics
  • Impact sequence
  • Analysis of numerous witness reports
  • Review and analysis of the available recorded data, including witness videos, aircraft tracking data, audio recordings and any onboard systems
  • Review and analysis of environmental influences
  • The crew’s qualifications, experience and medical information
  • The nature of aerial fire-fighting operations
  • Operating policies and procedures
  • Exploring the possible reasons why the CVR did not record the accident flight
  • Similar occurrences

The ATSB will continue to consult with the engine and airframe type certificate holders. Accredited representatives from the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been appointed to participate in the investigation.

Acknowledgments
The ATSB acknowledges the support of the NSW Police Force, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW Fire and Rescue, the Australian Defence Force, and those involved with facilitating safe access to an active fire ground and supporting the ATSB’s on-site investigation team.

_________

The information contained in this preliminary report is released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 and is derived from the initial investigation of the occurrence. Readers are cautioned that new evidence will become available as the investigation progresses that will enhance the ATSB’s understanding of the accident as outlined in this preliminary report. As such, no analysis or findings are included.

_________

  1. Eastern Daylight-saving Time (EDT): Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 11 hours.
  2. From the video, it was unclear if the aircraft flew behind the smoke or entered the smoke.
  3. Significant meteorological information (SIGMET): a weather advisory service that provides the location, extent, expected movement and change in intensity of potentially hazardous (significant) or extreme meteorological conditions that are dangerous to most aircraft, such as thunderstorms or severe turbulence.
  4. The Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport has an elevation of 3,106 ft.

MIL-8 MTV helicopter filmed in Australia

MIL-8 helicopter
The MIL-8 helicopter operated by Hevilift. Screenshot from the video.

The video below published January 10, 2020 features a  helicopter operated by Hevilift that was becoming available to help firefighters in Australia.

The on scene reporter said the helicopter can carry 5,000 liters (1,300 gallons), which is half of the capacity of an Air-Crane helicopter. Large and very large air tankers can carry 3,000 to 19,000 gallons.

The MIL-8 MTV did not extract the UH-1H helicopter that earlier ditched into a lake, as stated in the video. The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Army pulled it out of the water.

Why 2,500 liters of retardant was dropped in Australia’s capital city

It happened near the National Emergency Services Memorial

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Tamara Penniket.

Wednesday’s accidental drop of 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of fire retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia led to a hazardous material response from the Australian Capital Territory Fire & Rescue.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the inadvertent retardant drop came from a Single Engine Air Tanker, an Air Tractor AT802 with a Gen3 door. The SEAT encountered significant turbulence on climb-out from the retardant base at Canberra airport on the way to the Orroral Valley Fire.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Screenshot from ABC News video.

“In maneuvering the aircraft through the turbulence, the pilot accidentally activated the drop button,” Mr. Alder said. “The drop system was armed, in accordance with normal climb-out procedure, to enable a rapid emergency drop [should it become necessary].”

He said the aircraft operator is reviewing their procedures to see if the risk of an inadvertent drop can be reduced, while maintaining appropriate safety for the aircraft and pilot.

The retardant affected Parkes Way, a parking lot at Rond Terrace, a large roundabout with a pond, and the south end of Anzac Parade, the street that leads to the Australian War Memorial. The drop was a short distance northwest of the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Elise Fantin.

Mr. Alder said the SEAT was following a route to the fire that avoided overflight of residential areas.

Several decades ago in the United States large air tankers worked out of a retardant base at the Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles. The story goes that a lady who lived near the airport was known for complaining about the noise from the firefighting aircraft. Her criticism had little effect until the day one of the tankers had a problem on climb-out and had to jettison the load. And, as luck would have it, the retardant landed on that poor lady’s house. Not long after that the tanker base was permanently closed.

Air tanker drops retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia

About a mile from Parliament House at the capital

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ACT Emergency Services Agency.

An air tanker dropped retardant in the city of Canberra, the capital of Australia on February 4.

The aircraft was working on the Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The ACT Emergency Services Agency said the aircraft “encountered turbulence causing 2,500 litres of retardant to be released on Parkes Way.” A number of cars were coated with the retardant, and judging from the photo below, at least one person.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
From this retardant shadow it appears that at least one person was affected by the retardant drop in downtown Canberra, ACT, Australia February 4, 2020. Photo by Lukas Coch, AAP.

The fact that 2,500 liters (600 gallons) were released leads one to guess the aircraft may have been a Single Engine Air Tanker, unless it was a partial load from a large air tanker.

The turbulence could have forced a low flying air tanker to suddenly and unexpectedly lose altitude, and the pilot might have jettisoned the load in order to help regain altitude and control. Or, the G-forces produced stress causing the tank doors or other hardware to fail. Regardless, we are happy that retardant was the only thing that fell out of the sky on Tuesday.

ACT Fire & Rescue worked with the Environmental Protection Authority to assess the situation at the impacted area which included the carpark at Rond Terrace and Anzac Parade at Rond Pond.

The retardant was close to the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

(UPDATE, Feb. 10, 2020: More information has become available about the cause of the retardant drop)

Heat from helicopter’s landing light starts fire in Australia

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of a Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

(This article first appeared on Wildfire Today)

Several bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have kept firefighters busy in recent days. The Department of Defense admitted that one of the fires two weeks ago was caused by heat from a landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter. It burned within a kilometer of Tharwa, a suburb south of Canberra.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“The fire started during routine aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance work being conducted in the area in support of our local firefighters and authorities,” Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said on behalf of the Department of Defense.

Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said the helicopter was using the lights to help it land in smoky conditions, but the heat set a fire that grew rapidly and damaged the aircraft. He said defense was investigating the issue but operating procedures would be changed so that the landing lights were not used in extreme conditions.

It is reportedly the first time a fire has been started by a helicopter landing light.

Smoke from another fire in the ACT that shut down the Canberra Airport for a while was caused by beekeepers checking hives. The fire started January 22 and for several hours threatened homes and businesses.

From the ABC:

The Beard fire jumped the Molonglo River on Thursday and came close to the suburbs of Beard, Harman and Oaks Estate. It also merged with a second fire on Kallaroo Road, which began in the same suburb of Pialligo earlier in the day.

The combined fire reached 424 hectares in size and was at emergency alert level for much of the afternoon, but by 9:00pm was down to 379 hectares.

The hives are part of a national honey bee surveillance program that regularly checks for the arrival of exotic pests that might threaten Australia’s bee population.That process uses smokers to calm the bees so the hives can be inspected, which requires lighting fuels to generate the smoke. The hives are maintained on behalf of the ACT Government by Canberra Region Beekeepers — the program is usually run through state agriculture departments in other jurisdictions.

Air tankers based in Richmond, New South Wales have been busy recently. Between January 26 and 31 a DC-10, Tanker 911, flew 22 missions, while T-137, a 737, flew 12. Their destinations were in or near the ACT and in southern NSW.

Tanker 131, a C-130Q based in Avalon, Victoria completed several missions north of Melbourne and along the Victoria/NSW border.

Video released of the final drop of Tanker 134 in Australia

The EC-130Q crashed in New South Wales January 23, 2020

Tanker 134 C-130 crash EC-130Q Australia fatalities Coulson
Screenshot from video of the final drop of Tanker 134, an EC-130Q, January 23, 2020 in New South Wales. The video was posted on YouTube January 29, 2020 by Smokey Veras.

A video has emerged of the final retardant drop of Air Tanker 134, the Coulson Aviation EC-130Q that crashed just after the drop January 23, 2020.

It appears from the video that as the drop was made the wind was approximately from the 5 o’clock position of the aircraft. Judging from wind noise on the cell phone’s microphone, dust blowing on the road, and the movement of the smoke, the wind speed was pretty significant.

The video contains a brief view of fire near the end, which may be sensitive to some people.

After making the drop, the aircraft began a left turn and climbed slightly before disappearing in the smoke, reappearing for a second, and soon after that crashed.

Tanker 134 C-130 crash EC-130Q Australia fatalities Coulson
The crash scene of Tanker 134 photographed by an Army drone mapping the fire.
Tanker 134 C-130 crash EC-130Q Australia fatalities Coulson
The crash scene of Tanker 134 photographed by an Army drone mapping the fire.

All members of the three-person crew died in the crash. Captain Ian H. McBeth lived in Great Falls, Montana and served with the Wyoming Air National Guard and was still a member of the Montana Air National Guard. He spent his entire career flying C-130’s and was a qualified Instructor and Evaluator pilot. Ian earned his Initial Attack qualification for Coulson in 2018.

First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona graduated from the Naval Academy in 1999 and spent the next twenty years serving in the United States Marine Corp in a number of positions including C-130 pilot. He retired as a Lt. Colonel.

Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. lived in Navarre, Florida. He served in the United States Air Force for eighteen years as a Flight Engineer on the C-130. Rick had over 4,000 hours as a Flight Engineer with nearly 2,000 hours in a combat environment.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jay. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Canadians send aircraft to assist with Australian bushfires

They have hauled aerial fire retardant and will provide other airlift support

Canadian Forces CC-177 support Australian bushfires
On January 28 members from the Royal Canadian Air Force, U.S. Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force loaded dry fire retardant mix onboard a CAF CC-177. The aircraft carried fire retardant from the US to Australia to support firefighting operations. Royal Canadian Air Force photo.

The Canadian Armed Forces are sending aircraft to Australia to assist with the unprecedented number bushfires that have been plaguing the eastern side of the continent for months. At least one of the aircraft will be a CC-177 Globemaster III, similar to the C-17 used in the United States and Australia.

Their plans are to transport dry fire retardant mix from the U.S. to Australia, provide airlift support to Australia, and provide imagery support for two hard hit areas in Victoria. The images acquired will support fire prediction modeling and enhance the efficiency of firefighting efforts on the ground.

A couple of weeks ago a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 also took a load of retardant from the U.S. to Australia.

Canadian Forces CC-177 support Australian bushfires
On January 28 members from the Royal Canadian Air Force, U.S. Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force loaded dry fire retardant mix onboard a CAF CC-177. The aircraft carried fire retardant from the US to Australia to support firefighting operations. Royal Canadian Air Force photo.
Canadian Forces CC-177 support Australian bushfires
A Royal Canadian Air Force CC-177 will be supporting bushfire efforts in Australia. Royal Canadian Air Force photo.