Pilot killed in helicopter crash near Payson, Arizona

The helicopter was transporting supplies for firefighters in a remote area

(Updated at 8:35 p.m. MDT July 7, 2020)

July 7, 2020 helicopter crash
General area of the July 7, 2020 helicopter crash. ABC15 image.

Officials from the Tonto National Forest confirmed that a helicopter crashed July 7 while working on the Polles Fire in central Arizona. The only person on board was the pilot, who was deceased. He was identified in a press conference as Bryan Boatman, 37, with Airwest Helicopters out of Glendale, Arizona. He leaves behind a wife and 8-year-old child.

The Chief of the Pine-Strawberry Fire District said the pilot’s wife arrived at the Payson Airport as the body was being retrieved from the accident scene.

The helicopter crashed while transporting supplies for hand crews north of the main fire in a remote area only accessible on foot or by helicopter. After the crash was reported to the fire’s Incident Commander at 12:22 p.m. Tuesday, a Sergeant with the Sheriff’s office was transported to the scene by short haul, suspended on a rope under a helicopter. He and others began the process of the investigation and removing the pilot’s remains.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the UH-1H helicopter went down about 10 miles west of Payson.

A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was issued at the Payson airport due to the crash, Airport Coordinator Dennis Dueker said, grounding all flights in the area.

As of Monday night the Polles Fire had burned 580 acres 11 miles west of Payson, Arizona.

The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) #2 led by John Pierson assumed command of the fire July 6 at 6 a.m.

Six hotshot crews and three other hand crews are working in conditions described by the incident management team as extreme. They have been working shifts late into the evening for the last few nights, spiked out in remote locations relying on helicopters to fly in their food, drinking water, and supplies.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of the pilot, and the firefighters that were working on the Polles Fire.

Map helicopter crash Arizona Payson Polles Fire
Map showing heat detected on the Polles Fire by satellites at 2:06 a.m. MDT July 7, 2020.

One of the four Alaska Department of Forestry employees hospitalized after airplane crash has been released

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

(This is updated information from the Alaska Department of Forestry about the aircraft crash that we earlier reported covered on May 28 and May 29.)


Three of the four Division of Forestry employees injured in a plane crash in the Western Alaska village of Aniak on Thursday are recovering in Anchorage hospitals today while the fourth has been treated and released.

The three individuals still hospitalized suffered serious but non-life threatening injuries and are in stable condition.

The pilot was identified as Mark Jordan, of Eagle River. The three emergency firefighters on board were identified as Albert Simon, of Hooper Bay; Craig Friday, of Hooper Bay; and Kelly Kehlenbach, of Aniak. The plane was en route from Aniak to McGrath, where the firefighters were to be outfitted for an assignment to support initial attack responses at the Kenai/Kodiak Area forestry station in Soldotna.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which occurred shortly after the plane took off from the Aniak airport at approximately 4 p.m. The plane, a state-owned Aero Commander 500 Shrike, crashed into a pond in a gravel pit.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Some of the rescuers at the Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash were teenagers

All four victims had serious but not life-threatening injuries

Aero Commander Alaska Department of Forestry
An example of an aircraft similar to the Aero Commander that crashed May 28 near Aniak, Alaska. Photo by Fred Seggie.

The four Alaska Department of Forestry (DOF) employees that were in the aircraft that crashed near Aniak, Alaska May 28 were transported to medical facilities in Anchorage, about 320 miles east of Aniak. In a May 29 update the DOF said their injuries were serious but not life-threatening. The plane was transporting emergency firefighters from two western Alaska villages to Soldotna to support initial attack wildfire responses for the Kenai/Kodiak Area Forestry station.

(Other articles about this incident were posted on April 28 and April 30.)

Shortly after takeoff the twin-engine Aero Commander 500 Shrike crashed into a water-filled gravel pit about 2.5 miles west of the northwest end of the runway.

Among the first at the scene were three teenagers (who were later joined by a fourth), ranging in age from 13 to approximately 19, that were driving past the area and saw the aircraft in the water, but did not see or hear it crash.

As they drove closer and parked they saw two people exiting the aircraft.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Three of the four teens waded into the water that Dylan Nicholson, 13, told us over the phone was chest-high on his five-foot tall body. The water was shallow enough that the plane was resting on the bottom of the pond. While standing in the water that Dylan said was “very cold”, they worked to remove the remaining two people from the damaged plane. They could not get the door open at first, so they broke out a window to help extricate the last two individuals; eventually they were able to force the door open. The teens called emergency services for help and others arrived to assist. Some of the rescuers were in the water for about half an hour, according to one report.

At least one of the patients was taken to a clinic in the teen’s truck. Others that were more seriously injured were moved to the shore in a boat and then transported by ambulance to the clinic. Later they were all flown to Anchorage.

Dylan and his mom Mary Turner said the other three teens that were among the first to arrive at the scene were Trevor Morgan, Arthur Simeon, and Mason Dallnann. Others (and we are probably missing some) included Skye Morgan, Dakota Phillips, and Billy Turner (their ages unknown).

The rescuers and their families sent us these photos:

Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Dylan Nicholson
Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Dakota Phillips and Billy Turner
Alaska Department of Forestry plane crash rescuers
Arthur Simeon and Trevor Morgan stand in front of the truck that transported at least one of the injured persons.

Congratulations to these young people and the others that helped rescue the four victims of the crash. And we hope the four that were injured recover quickly.

Plane carrying firefighters crashes in Alaska

All four on board survive

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

The Alaska Division of Forestry reported that four of their employees survived a plane crash near the western Alaska village of Aniak today, May 28 at approximately 4 p.m.

(Click here to see an update on this incident, posted May 29, 2020, and here to see another posted May 30, 2020)

The DOF said the plane, owned by the DOF, crashed into the Kuskokwim River on takeoff. There were four people on board, including the pilot, and all four individuals suffered injuries. The seriousness of the injuries is unknown at this time.

Aniak aircraft Crash
The wreckage of an Alaska Division of Forestry aircraft that crashed on takeoff at the Aniak, Alaska airport, May 28, 2020. Photo by David Mattson.

Alaska State Troopers and local Emergency Services personnel responded to the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration have been notified.

The plane, an Aero Commander 500 Shrike, was transporting emergency firefighters from two western Alaska villages to Soldotna to support initial attack wildfire responses for the Kenai/Kodiak Area Forestry station.

David Mattson, who runs a shop near the runway, took these photos. He said the water at the site was shallow enough that personnel waded in and rescued the four individuals. He said the aircraft crashed into a gravel pit pond near the river about 2.5 miles west of the northwest end of the runway, rather than in the river as reported by the DOF. Another resident of Aniak confirmed the crash was in the gravel pit.

Aniak Airport
Aniak, Alaska Airport. Google Earth.

Report released for crash of Air-Crane helicopter into lake

The accident occurred in Australia in January, 2019

Air-crane helicopter crash Australia report
From the ATSB report.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined that the Air-Crane helicopter that crashed into a lake January 28, 2019 in Victoria, Australia was a victim of vortex ring state (VRS). The accident occurred on a firefighting mission as it descended to draft water at a narrow lake with steep sides.

From the report released April 17, 2020:

The topography, high rate of powered descent, and steep flare that reduced the airspeed, created conditions conducive to the onset of VRS. The crew reported that the rapidity of onset and dimensions of the dip site did not provide enough time or space to maneuver sideways to effect a recovery.

Air-Crane crash Australia helicopter
The Air-Crane crashed in a lake surrounded by rising terrain.

Here is what I wrote about the accident on January 28, 2019 in a comment below the report of the accident:

If the helicopter was attempting to hover to draft water to refill its tanks, the fairly narrow section of the lake with what appears to be steep rising terrain nearby may have been a factor in the confined space. The Air-Crane has six blades on the main rotor with a diameter of 72 feet. It may have encountered what helicopter pilots refer to as a “Vortex Ring State” or VRS. The canyon slopes may have prevented the massive rotor wash from diffusing and could have caused the cushion of air beneath it to become chaotic as the helicopter neared the water surface, reducing lift.

VRS in addition to density altitude was a factor in the crash of the MH-X Silent Hawk that transported Seal Team 6 as they attacked the hideout of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The helicopter was landing inside a yard surrounded by high walls when it lost lift. The pilots had practiced landing in a full-scale model of the site, but the walls in the model were represented by chain link fencing material, and were not solid like the walls around Osama bin Laden’s house. The rotor wash would have been more easily diffused through the chain link fence during the rehearsals.

Air-Crane 341
Air-Crane 341. From the report.

Two crewmembers were not injured, but one sustained a knee injury. In May, 2019 the helicopter was recovered after a complex salvage process.

Air-Crane extracted from lake crash

Below are excerpts from the ATSB report about the Air-Crane incident (which you can view here):


…After a number of water drops, the aerial attack supervisor (AAS) re-tasked the crew to fight a flame front further north, which was east-northeast from the dip site. Each drop was also incrementally further north. This resulted in the crew gradually tightening the approach to the dip site.

During the occurrence approach, the tighter approach resulted in a greater than normal flare to arrest the aircraft at the aiming point in the dip site. The higher nose pitch up prompted the SIC to advise the PIC to move forward of the trees before descending any further to ensure tail rotor clearance. Clear of the trees, the flare was increased.

While descending with a nose-high attitude, the aircraft struck the water tail-first, submerging and removing the tail rotor, causing rapid rotation to the right through one and half turns. While rotating, the main rotor blades separated as they contacted water. The right cockpit door separated from the fuselage, and the aircraft came to rest on its left side, submerging the cockpit.

Each crewmember recalled the rehearsed drills from their helicopter underwater escape training (HUET). They identified their seat belt and nearest exit to orientate themselves in the aircraft. They all waited until the last moment to draw a breath, and did not unbuckle and exit the helicopter until motion had ceased. The crew reported that it was not possible to see anything underwater, and that jet fuel contamination was present.

The SIC in the right seat exited through his doorway, from which the door was already missing. The PIC could not open his door so he swam across the cabin (up) and was assisted by the SIC to exit through the right hand door. As the rear door was jammed, the crew chief in the aft seat pushed out a window from the rear of the cabin, and exited through it.

Neither pilot unplugged their helmet. However, the extension cords from the aircraft to the helmet plug allowed the plug to release, preventing the helmets from snaring the pilots. All three crew escaped, and inflated their life jackets. Two crew were uninjured, and one crewmember sustained a knee injury.

At the time of the accident, crews aboard S-76 and S-61N helicopters were assessing the potential of the dip site for later use in night operations. An AAS aboard the S-76 relayed details of the accident to an incident controller who enacted the emergency response plan. Neither the S-76 nor the S-61N was equipped or able to provide direct assistance, other than monitoring, and relaying information. Following exit from the helicopter, the only form of communication available to the Skycrane crew was hand signals. They gave thumbs-up indications to the crew of the overhead S-61N to advise that they were okay. The Skycrane crew then swam to shore and trekked through dense bush to a road where they were met by rescuers.

Findings
These findings should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organization or individual.

  • The crew conducted a tight descending right hand turn into the dam [lake], inside the upper margins of the flight envelope. This approach required a steep flare on arrival and likely resulted in the rapid onset of vortex ring state.
  • The dam’s [lake’s] steep sides and narrow tapered body provided limited opportunity for vortex ring state recovery actions, contributing to collision with water.
  • The Crew Chief’s presence aboard the aircraft during firebombing operations exposed him to unnecessary risk.
  • All crewmembers credited their survival to skills learned and practiced in Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. In addition, the helmet cord extension cables detached easily from the aircraft, contributing directly to the crew’s egress from the flooded cockpit.

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.

In a 5-year period two helicopter crashes during aerial ignition operations resulted in three fatalities

The risk of flying low and slow with a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

(This article was first published on WildfireToday.com)

After seeing the wildland firefighter accident and injury stats for 2019 I checked to see if the National Transportation Safety Board had any additional information about the helicopter crash on a prescribed fire in Texas March 27, 2019 that resulted in one fatality and two people with injuries. Here is an excerpt from their preliminary report:

On March 27, 2019, about 1435 central daylight time, an Airbus AS350B3 helicopter, N818MC, was substantially damaged when it collided with trees and terrain following a loss of engine power near Montgomery, Texas. The commercial rated pilot was seriously injured, one Forest Service crew member was fatally injured, and another crew member sustained minor injuries. The helicopter was owned by Mountain Air Helicopters, Inc and operated by the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a public use helicopter. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight which operated without a flight plan.

The helicopter and crew were conducting plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) applications in support of controlled fire operations in an area of the Sam Houston National Forest. Initial information provided by the pilot and surviving crew member report that after completing the application, the helicopter began flying back to the helicopter’s staging area when the engine lost complete power. The helicopter descended into trees and subsequently impacted terrain, coming to rest on its right side. One crew member and the pilot were able to exit the helicopter, however one of the crew members was partially ejected from the helicopter and sustained fatal injuries.

One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital.

It could be another six months or so before the final report is released.

The prescribed fire was in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.

In 2015 two were killed in Mississippi under similar circumstances on a prescribed fire when engine failure brought down a helicopter conducting aerial ignition operations. A third person suffered serious injuries.

march 30, 2015 helicopter crash Mississippi aerial ignitions
The helicopter involved in the March 30, 2015 incident in Mississippi, N50KH, is shown with doors removed and Pilot and PSD operator positions visible.

Flying low and slow in a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire below the aircraft is obviously very, very dangerous. These three fatalities offer very compelling justification for using drones for aerial ignition instead of manned aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from the final NTSB report for the 2015 crash in Mississippi (Accident #ERA15FA173):


Analysis
The purpose of the flight was to assist in the scheduled burn of an 800-acre wooded area. The helicopter was under contract with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. A Forest Service employee reported that, as the helicopter neared the conclusion of a 61-minute controlled burn mission, he observed it complete a turn to a northerly heading at the southwestern end of the burn area. About 7 seconds later, he heard a sound that resembled an air hose being unplugged from a pressurized air tank. A crewmember, who was the sole survivor, reported that the helicopter was about 20 ft above the tree canopy when the pilot announced that the helicopter had lost power. The helicopter then descended into a group of 80-ft-tall trees in a nose-high attitude and impacted terrain. Witnesses participating in the controlled burn at the time of the accident did not observe any other anomalies with the helicopter before the accident.

The fuel system, fuel pump, and fuel control unit were destroyed by fire, which precluded a complete examination. During the engine examination, light rotational scoring was found in the turbine assembly, consistent with light rotation at impact; however, neither the turbine rotation speed nor the amount of engine power at the time of the accident could be determined. The rotor blade damage and drive shaft rotation signatures indicated that the rotor blades were not under power at the time of the accident. An examination of the helicopter’s air tubes revealed that they were impact-damaged; however, they appeared to be secure and properly seated at their fore and aft ends.

On the morning of the accident flight, the helicopter departed on a reconnaissance flight with 600 lbs of JP-5 fuel. The helicopter returned with sufficient fuel for about 133 minutes of flight, and the helicopter was subsequently serviced with an unknown quantity of uncontaminated fuel for the subsequent 60-minute accident flight. Based on the density altitude, temperature, and airplane total weight at the time of the accident, the helicopter was operating within the airplane flight manual’s performance limitations.

Most of the cockpit control assemblies were consumed by fire except for the throttle, which was found in the “idle” position. Given the crewmember’s report that, after the engine failure, the helicopter entered and maintained a nose-high attitude until it impacted trees and then the ground, it is likely that the pilot initiated an autorotation in accordance with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook engine failure and autorotation procedures. A review of the pilot’s records revealed that he passed the autorotation emergency procedure portion of his most recent Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 examination, which occurred 1 month before the accident, and this may have aided in his recognition of the engine failure and decision to initiate an emergency descent.

Although a weather study indicated that smoke and particulates were present in the area before, during, and after the accident, witnesses reported an absence of smoke near the area where the helicopter lost power and impacted the ground.

Probable Cause and Findings
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
A loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined due to post-accident fire damage.