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 after rescuers extricated them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

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.

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.

Fire Department helicopter crew responded to Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash

I was at Los Angeles County FD’s Barton Heliport as the crew on Helicopter 12 geared-up and responded

LA County Fire Department helicopter Kobe Bryant crash
Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighter/paramedics gear up for rappelling after being dispatched to what turned out to be the crash of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter, January 26, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Cool, moist air limited the visibility the morning of January 26 when I stopped by the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Barton Heliport in Pacoima, California. When I arrived at 9 a.m. to report on the helicopter program there was one small hole in the low clouds, trying to let a little direct sunlight reach the ground. About 45 minutes later I was in the flight crews’ ready room with five or six people. One of them was eating scrambled eggs from a bowl when the alert tones immediately got everyone’s attention. “Copter 12, that’s us”, said the flight crew member I was talking with. “Well sir, it was nice meeting you. There are others here who can answer your questions”, he said as he walked over to the bank of radios.

Most of the Barton facility is devoted to parking and maintaining helicopters, but also located there are county shops for welding, woodworking, plumbing, and heavy equipment. I drove past a huge D-9 dozer on the way to the hangar.

The LACFD has 10 helicopters — five Bell 412s and five Sikorsky Firehawks. They are all multi-mission helicopters, equipped for fighting fire, hoisting victims, inserting personnel, and can transport individuals injured in accidents.  The Bells are classified as Type 2 by the Incident Command System and can carry 360 gallons of water after most of the fuel has burned off. With a full load of fuel they usually can drop about 200 gallons of water on a vegetation fire.

The Firehawks, which are Blackhawks converted for firefighting, are Type 1 helicopters and can almost always haul about 1,000 gallons. The ships are flown by a single pilot. Steve Smith, a firefighter/paramedic, said the crew chiefs are fighter/paramedics and recently started attending a flight safety course that includes flight simulator training. One of the objectives of that training is that if the pilot becomes incapacitated they would be able to use the controls at the left seat to get the ship safely on the ground.

Back in the ready room, after the tones the dispatcher said, “West County, West County, potential plane crash”. Additional units were dispatched “since vegetation is involved”. A minute or two later the information was updated to a helicopter, not an airplane, crash.

A printer quickly spit out a small piece of paper that was given to the crew  as they left the room.

The location of the incident was about 16 miles southwest of Barton Heliport in the Calabasas area east of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that burned 97,000 acres from Simi Valley south to the Pacific Ocean at Malibu.

LA County Fire Department helicopter Kobe Bryant crash
Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighter/paramedics gear up for rappelling after being dispatched to what turned out to be the crash of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter, January 26, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Not knowing exactly what kind of terrain or vegetation they would find, the three-person crew, a pilot and two firefighter/paramedics, prepared for the possibility of having to lower personnel by a hoist down to the site from the hovering helicopter. Two of the men stood next to their ship and put on the harnesses. After each had conducted a safety check of the other to ensure the complex harnesses were correctly configured, they climbed on board as the pilot started the two engines and soon were airborne heading southwest.

The three remaining men listened closely to the radio in the ready room. They all pulled out their cell phones and attempted to keep up with their colleagues using flight following apps, but as Copter 12 got closer to the coast in more complex terrain the flight tracking became inconsistent. They monitored a local television station hoping to find out more about the crash.

Realizing that the remaining personnel were going to be busy for a while, I figured my best option was to get out of their hair. When I left they had not yet learned that the other crew was going to the scene of a helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters, the pilot, and six other passengers.

May they all rest in peace.

I found out a couple of days later that when the helicopter arrived at the scene of the accident one of the firefighter/paramedics was lowered by hoist to the ground while the other operated the hoist. The firefighter on the ground sized up the scene and gave a report by radio to the Incident Commander.

Fire engines arrived to put out the small fire. The terrain and distance from the nearest road made it a challenge to get fire hose to the site so the crewman on the ground was hoisted back up to the helicopter and then the ship landed near some of the engines and obtained hose to haul back to the fire. Then a bundle of hose and a firefighter/paramedic were lowered by hoist to the ground. Soon thereafter plenty of other emergency services personnel were on scene so Helicopter 12 was released to return to Barton Heliport.

More information has become available about the C-130 crash in Australia

Investigators have recovered the cockpit voice recorder

C-130 crash site NSW
NSW police and a military aircraft near the site of the C-130 crash near Cooma, NSW. Photo: NSW Police.

Australian media outlets have published aerial photos of the site where Air Tanker 134, an EC-130Q, crashed in New South Wales January 23, 2020. In some respects the site looks similar to those taken after the 2012 crash of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) C-130 aircraft. The sections of the aircraft that received the least damage were the tails.

The 2012 accident occurred on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota and resulted in four fatalities among the seven-person crew. Two crewmen in the rear of the aircraft were injured but survived. Those two were operating the pressurized Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) in the cargo hold which enables a military C-130 to function as an air tanker, capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. On a C-130 with a conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, all three crewmen are in the cockpit.

I will not force anyone to look at the crash scene photos, but if you feel up to it you can find them at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) here and here. Reuters also has decent coverage. Most of the photos were taken by a drone operated by the Army. They are using the aircraft to map the site.

The information that has come out so far indicates that the crash occurred following a retardant drop. The drop could have been planned, or the retardant might have been jettisoned if the aircraft was suddenly in a dangerous position.

Investigators with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) have found the cockpit voice recorder in the tail of the plane and hope to analyze it by Sunday.

NSW police said they have recovered the bodies of the three crew members that were killed, Ian H. McBeth, Captain, Paul Clyde Hudson, First Officer, and Rick A. DeMorgan Jr., Flight Engineer. They will be repatriated to the United States as soon as possible.

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

An overview of the C-130 incident in Australia

From L-R, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, Captain Ian H. McBeth, Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. Coulson Aviation photo.

A video has been posted on YouTube by “blancolirio”, who frequently makes aviation-related videos. In the 15-minute piece he analyzes from afar the January 23, 2020 crash of Air Tanker 134, the Coulson Aviation EC-130Q in which Paul Hudson, Ian McBeth, and Rick DeMorgan Jr. were killed while working on a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Keep in mind it will be months before the investigators release a report and the cause of the crash has not been determined.

This incident and the loss of these three men has had a severe impact on the small air tanker community.

Coulson has two C-130 air tankers (the other is T-131). The loss of T-134 drops that number to one. They also operate several Type 1 helicopters, a recently converted Boeing 737, and have four other 737s and five more C-130s with plans to convert them into air tankers in the future.

Rest In Peace

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

Air tanker crash in Australia kills three crew members

It was working on a fire in New South Wales

Rest In Peace

Tanker 134
Tanker 134 as it started a new contract with CAL FIRE. Coulson photo, April 11, 2019.

Updated at 6:01 a.m. PST January 23, 2020 (US time)

A C-130Q air tanker (N134CG) crashed in southern New South Wales Thursday January 23 (Australia time). All three members of the crew perished.

Coulson Aviation released a statement saying their aircraft, Tanker 134, had departed from Richmond NSW on a firebombing mission and went down in the Snowy Monaro area. There were three fatalities.

(UPDATE: the three men have been identified)

Tanker 134 had been working on a contract in Australia since August, 2019.

Tanker 134 (N134CG)
The last flight path of Tanker 134 (N134CG) recorded by FlightAware, January 23, 2020 U.S. local time.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau will be investigating the incident which they said occurred at Peak View near Cooma, NSW. The agency is expected to release a preliminary report within 30 days.

map crash tanker 134
The marker shows the location of Tanker 134 that was last recorded on FlightAware.
location Tanker 134 crash
This Google Earth 3-D map shows the general location of Tanker 134 last recorded by FlightAware. The map is looking north.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Coulson has grounded its entire fleet of air tankers out of respect for those who died. “Our hearts are with all those that are suffering in what is the loss of three remarkable, well-respected crew that have invested so many decades of their life into firefighting,” he said.

Cameron Price of 7NEWS Sydney reported on the incident:

Wreckage of missing RFS C-130 located by search crews. Reports only tail section intact. Aircraft has broken up on impact. Crews reporting difficult terrain and “terrible visibility”.

The Premier of New South Wales said out of respect for the crew flags would fly at half mast in the state, and:

Heartbreaking & devastating news that three US residents who were crew members operating a LAT in the Snowy Mountains region have lost their lives. Our thoughts & heartfelt condolences are with their families & the tight knit firefighting community.

The U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Arthur B. Culvahuse Jr. said:

I am deeply saddened by the tragic news we received today. The brave Americans who died near Snowy Monaro died helping Australia in its time of need. The families and friends of those who we have lost are in our thoughts and prayers. Thank you Australia for your sympathy and solidarity.

From the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre:

@CIFFC and its member agencies are deeply saddened by this tragic event. We send our condolences to our firefighting colleagues at #CoulsonAviation & @NSWRFS

Earlier the New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported that contact had been lost with a large air tanker that was working in the southern part of the state in the Snowy Monaro area.

@aus_forum
Posted at 7:22 PST January 22, 2019 (US time)

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and coworkers of the crew.

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

Helicopter ditches in lake while fighting bushfire in Australia

The pilot swam to shore and was taken to a hospital

UH-1H helicopter submerged Ben Boyd Reservoir
A UH-1H helicopter partially submerged in Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, New South Wales. Photo by Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service.

Thursday afternoon January 9 at about 4 p.m. local time a helicopter under contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia ditched into a lake on the far south coast of NSW. After impacting the water the UH-1H helicopter submerged but the pilot was able to self-extricate and swim to shore. The pilot was the only person on board.

The Canberrra Times reported that the 47-year old pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics for shoulder, back, and ankle injuries before being taken to the South East Regional Hospital.

The helicopter was refilling with water at Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, in the Bega Valley Shire.

The aircraft had been moved from the Clyde Mountain Fire to work on the Border Fire in Eden which has crossed from NSW into Victoria. It merged with another fire creating a massive 150,000 hectare (370,000 acres).

Firefighting helicopter goes down in Queensland, Australia

Helicopter Down crash Queensland Australia
Photo by 9News

A helicopter that was assisting firefighters on a bushfire in Queensland, Australia had a hard landing near Pechey north of Toowoomba. The pilot, believed to be in his 70s, was injured and flown to a hospital by another helicopter.

9News reported that the incident occurred as the pilot attempted to perform an emergency landing in strong winds.

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