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.

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.

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.

C-130 crash victims identified

Air Tanker 134 crashed in New South Wales January 23, 2020

Rest In PeaceThe three crew members who perished January 23 in the crash of the C-130 in Australia have been identified.

  • Ian H. McBeth, Captain
  • Paul Clyde Hudson, First Officer
  • Rick A. DeMorgan Jr., Flight Engineer

May they rest in peace.

Below is information released by Coulson Aviation, January 23, 2020.


C-130Q crash victims Australia

C-130Q crash victims Australia

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.

Three firefighting helicopters have crashed in Portugal recently, killing 2 pilots

In the last 16 days two pilots have been killed in three helicopter crashes in Portugal while fighting wildfires.

The most recent fatality occurred today, September 5, involving a helicopter owned by Afocelca, a private firefighting company working for various Portuguese pulp producers. There are media reports that the aircraft crashed after hitting power lines, but that can’t be confirmed. The helicopter went down near Valongo, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Porto.

Reuters reported that yesterday, September 4, another helicopter crashed in Portugal while assisting wildland firefighters. Thankfully the pilot only had minor injuries.

fires map Portugal
The red dots represent heat detected in Portugal by a NASA satellite September 5, 2019.

In a third incident in Portugal, a pilot died August 20 in a helicopter crash.

From Safe Communities Portugal:

A helicopter fighting a fire in Castro Daire, Viseu, fell shortly before 13:00 hrs today Sunday 20th August, killing the pilot, Américo Sousa, aged 51 years.

The helicopter crashed into high-voltage cables, crashed and burned, and the pilot was trapped in the helicopter, according to a source at the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MAI).

The helicopter had just dropped off a GNR GIPS team at a fire at Cabril, Castro Daire.

Américo Sousa was an experienced pilot. For several years, he had been flying helicopters on several missions, but especially for rescue and firefighting
The helicopter was based at the Air Media Center in Armamar, Viseu. The Eurocopter AS350 Ecureuil belonging to Everjets is a single-pilot single-pilot helicopter with a maximum capacity of 5 people.

Castro Daire’s mayor, Fernando Carneiro, and fire chief commander Paulo Almeida confirmed the helicopter’s fall.

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

One fatality in air tanker crash in France

Sécurité Civile S-2 Air tankers
Sécurité Civile S-2 air tankers. Screenshot from the video below.

Friday afternoon at about 5:20 local time, August 2, an air tanker pilot, the only one on board, was killed in the crash of an S-2 in France near Généracx while working on a wildfire.

The accident was confirmed by the Prime Minister. The name of the pilot has not been released.

Sécurité Civile turbine-powered S-2s can be seen in the video below.

For years Sécurité Civile had been pondering what to do about replacing their nine S-2s that are approaching their structural life limit of 25,000 hours, according to the agency. Their plans announced in 2016 were to retire the S-2s between 2018 and 2022 which would require a two-year extension of the type certificate. The goal was to acquire aircraft that could carry more water or retardant, would reduce operating costs, and would be multi-role. On June 18, 2019 Conair delivered the first of six Dash 8-Q400MR air tankers to the Sécurité Civile base at Nimes-Garons in France. The Q400MRs will slowly replace the aging S-2 air tankers. Initially the newly arrived aircraft will be handled by the Direction Générale de l’Armement for acceptance procedures prior to beginning active duty. Securite Civile has operated two Q-400 air tankers since 2005.

In addition to the nine S-2s and two Q-400s, France also has twelve CL-415s and 40 helicopters. Like CAL FIRE, Sécurité Civile replaced the radial engines on the S-2s with turbines.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of the pilot.