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

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):

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.

Report released for fatal Mississippi helicopter crash

One person was seriously injured in the 2015 crash. The pilot and a USFS employee were killed.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a 90-page “Learning Review” about the March 30, 2015 crash of a helicopter that occurred during prescribed fire operations on a National Forest in Mississippi approximately 20 miles north of Gulfport. The accident took the lives of Forest Service employee Steve Cobb, contract pilot Brandon Ricks, and seriously injured another Forest Service employee on detail from Montana.

The helicopter was igniting a prescribed fire by using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), a device that drops small balls that burst into flame after they land on the ground. Steve Cobb was serving as the Firing Boss [FIRB] and the detailed employee was operating the PSD out of the right-rear door.

N50KH Bell 206-L
The helicopter that crashed was N50KH, a Bell 206-L.

According to the pilot’s personal flight logbooks, he had accumulated 6,471 total hours of flight experience, about 6,300 hours of which were in the accident helicopter make and model. The owner estimated that the pilot had accrued 22 additional flight hours in the 90 days that preceded the accident.

Before the flight the engine on the helicopter failed to start on the first try, but the second attempt was successful. Later over the prescribed fire the aircraft made about 12 passes over the project and had been flying for about an hour when the crash occurred.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS report:

The PSD operator recalled they “were flying along 25-to-30 feet above the highest tree…things were going really well,” and they were nearly through the first bag of balls when he heard two alarm warning buzzers go off simultaneously or nearly so followed immediately by the pilot stating, “We lost power,” and FIRB saying, “We’re going in; we’re going in.”

The PSD operator swung his right leg over the PSD machine and back inside the helicopter, just as he had practiced in his head when he envisioned this scenario. He didn’t want his leg broken or trapped under the helicopter if it were to roll on its side. As he tightened his lap belt and pushed his back against the seat, hands on his knees in the crash position, he felt the helicopter tip backwards and to the right slightly. The PSD operator believed the pilot initiated this position purposefully, possibly as part of an autorotation. The descent through the tree canopy was not violent, and the helicopter slipped through the trees tail first. The impact with the ground was “abrupt.” The PSD operator felt the lap belt catch him; the impact knocked the wind out of him.

The PSD operator remembers the helicopter coming to rest more or less upright, and it was quiet. The PSD operator could hear breathing over the intercom system and “crackling” as the balls they had just dropped began to establish fire. He thought to himself, “I’m still alive!” He unbuckled the lap belt and unhooked the gunner strap’s tether from the helicopter, then reached forward to jostle the pilot, yelling at the pilot and FIRB, “We gotta get outta here.” He exited the helicopter from the right side and once on the ground, moved towards the front of the aircraft. He yelled again, “We gotta go,” calling each by name while realizing they were unconscious and that he wouldn’t be able to move them with his injuries. As it was, he was having difficulty breathing and standing up. He now heard the roar of the fire that had grown from small individual spots of fire to a wall of flames surrounding them; he knew it was time to move.

He turned and faced the wall of flames and thought, “I just survived a helicopter crash; I am going to live.” He recounted, “I started walking, through the wall of flames 10-to-15 feet thick, then all the glowing ashes on the other side and residual heat…hands over my face and screaming into my hands and saying, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall’…everything was glowing and I just kept going…I could feel myself burning…the watchband melting on my wrist.” The PSD operator walked approximately 900 feet in a westerly direction to reach the 415A road and the western edge of the burn unit sometime between 1448 and 1451.

After a while he was found by firefighters and was eventually transported by ground ambulance to a waiting air ambulance which flew him to the University of Southern Alabama Hospital in Mobile, Alabama. His injuries included fractures of two cervical and two lumbar vertebrae, left ocular and left side ribs; and intestinal and hernia tears.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the helicopter experienced a “loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined”. The helicopter did not catch fire when it hit the ground, but it was soon ignited by the spreading prescribed fire, hampering the NTSB investigation.

The USFS Learning Review emphasized several issues related to the accident — not necessarily causes, but items for discussion. One was the decision to ignite the project from a helicopter rather than from the ground.

The primary purpose for utilizing helicopters for aerial ignition in this region is to mitigate the exposure of ground resources to the hazards of hand-lighting units. For Unit 1459, like most units on the De Soto Ranger District, a combination of the vegetation, terrain, and fire behavior make hand-lighting units inefficient and hazardous. Flame lengths of greater than four feet combined with difficult walking conditions raise a red flag for a burn boss concerning firefighter safety. Plants such as palmetto (Serenoa repens), gallberry (Llex spp.), ti-ti (Cyrilla racemiflora), and smilax (Smilax spp.) when combined with needles from longleaf, slash, and Loblolly pines can create flame lengths in excess of 10 feet with as little as a two-to-three year accumulation of dead material. These species are also very difficult to traverse. Smilax vines can ensnare firefighters and drip torches and stop them in their tracks. This area also still has some large dead fuel concentrations as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In these areas people working in the woods may encounter downed timber that can stop heavy equipment from forward progress.

Using an airborne resource for igniting a fire rather than personnel on the ground does not eliminate risk. It transfers it.

Another issue was the required flight characteristics of a helicopter while igniting a fire with a PSD. An air tanker when dropping retardant has to fly low and slow to be effective. Similarly, with the current versions of the PSD, a helicopter’s recommended speed should not exceed 50 mph (43 knots), while the preferred altitude is 300 feet above ground level (AGL).

Hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) is the typical flight profile.

The last data from the helicopter provided by the Automated Flight Following (AFF) before the crash indicated it was at 132 feet AGL and traveling at 43 knots.

From the report:

It is clear how organizational processes influenced the acceptance of risk. As a result, risk assessments did not consider the flight profile, as it was already determined that low/slow was necessary in order to accomplish the work. The fact that the recommendations for airspeed and altitude were heavily influenced by the capability of the PSD likely influenced a gradual decay over time of the options and decision space for the pilot to maintain optimal combinations of airspeed and altitude. The fact that this is a successful tool available for conducting prescribed burn operations, sets the stage to “justify” its use, rather than to prompt the agency to look at better options or technology.

The acknowledgement of these flight conditions in agency guides likely affects the deliberate acceptance of a “low and slow” profile as necessary for the accomplishment of the mission. A low/slow flight profile makes sense because it is suggested within written procedure. Over a period of time (4+ decades), confidence and acceptability of the flight parameters strengthens with each successful mission, along with a slight departure from the awareness of the hazards associated with the flight profiles. This is a demonstration of how the production goals creep into mission planning to dominate the protection goals without recognition of such. In this case, all required policy was followed and personnel were conducting their work within the operational norms set up by agency policy and culture.

The Learning Review has numerous recommendations, including modifying the existing PSD machines to enable the helicopter to fly higher and faster. Another is to invent an entirely new method of aerial ignition in order to mitigate the low and slow flight profile.

Funeral services held for victims of Mississippi helicopter crash

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Funeral services were held Saturday for the two firefighters who were killed in the March 30 crash of a helicopter that was being used on a prescribed fire in southern Mississippi.

Below is an excerpt from an article at WLOX:

WIGGINS, MS (WLOX) – First Baptist Church in Wiggins has a capacity of 300 people. For Steve Cobb’s memorial service on Saturday, there were 500 in the sanctuary.

This followed the more than 1,000 who attended the four-hour visitation on Friday.

People came from all over the state and country to find comfort and encouragement from one another and to try to understand how the long-time U.S. Forest Service employee died too soon.

The funeral service for pilot Brandon Ricks was also held Saturday in his hometown of Blanchard, Oklahoma.

The lone survivor, Brendan Mullen, continues to recover at the University of South Alabama Medical Center’s burn unit in Mobile.

The investigation into the crash by multiple agencies will likely last months if not a year or more.

Many attending the service were members of the U.S. Forest Service. The service was broadcast outside the church so that the message of his legacy could be heard loud and clear to everyone.

Obituary for Brandon Ricks.
Update on the condition of Brendan Mullen.

Update on services for victims of Mississippi helicopter crash

Background: On Monday, March 30, at 3 pm a helicopter crashed during a prescribed fire on the De Soto National Forest in southern Mississippi. Confirmed fatalities were Steve Cobb, 55 of Wiggins, Mississippi, and Brandon Ricks, 40 of Blanchard, Oklahoma. A third firefighter, Brendan Mullen, 42 of Helena, Montana, received extensive injuries.

Steve Cobb worked on the De Soto National Forest as an engineering technician. Steve is survived by his wife Cynthia Cobb, daughter Jenna Parsons, son Adam Cobb, and three grandchildren.

Brandon Ricks was a pilot from T & M Aviation Inc. of Abbeville, Louisiana. Brandon is survived by his wife, Coleen, daughter Kaitlyn, and son Hunter.

Brendan Mullen was temporarily assigned to the De Soto National Forest at the time of the crash. He is from Helena, MT where he works for the Helena National Forest as a forestry technician working with helicopters. Brendan’s family set up a webpage for words of encouragement.

Current Status: Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration continue. Several teams and U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Tony Tooke are on site to provide support for the victims, their families, and co-workers.

The Forest Service created a De Soto Aviation Event Firefighters Memorial webpage with more information about each firefighter.

Brendon Rick’s obituary.

Brendan Mullen’s condition is stable and he continues to improve.

Future Events: Visitation services for Steve Cobb are Friday, April 3, from 4 pm to 8 pm, and the funeral service is scheduled for Saturday April 4, at 11 am at the First Baptist Church, 219 Second Street North, Wiggins, Mississippi.

Visitation for Brandon Ricks will be Friday at Eisenhour Funeral Home in Blanchard, Oklahoma. His funeral service will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Blanchard, Oklahoma.

Brenden Mullen is scheduled for skin graft surgery tomorrow.

Several teams helping manage helicopter crash incident

(UPDATED at 9 a.m. MDT, April 2, 2015)

Below is information released by the incident management team that is helping to manage the helicopter crash incident in Mississippi.


On Monday, March 30, 2015, a helicopter assisting with a controlled burn on the De Soto National Forest crashed killing two firefighters and injuring a third. Killed were Brandon Ricks, 40, of Oklahoma, a pilot for T&M Aviation of Abbeville, Louisiana and Steve Cobb, 55, of Wiggins, Mississippi, an engineering technician for De Soto National Forest. Injured was Brendan Mullen, 42, a supervisory forestry technician from Helena National Forest in Montana.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of Brandon Ricks and Steve Cobb and we wish a rapid recovery for Brendan Mullen. Cards or letters of support to the Cobb family can be sent to De Soto Ranger District at 654 West Frontage Road. Wiggins, MS 39577. We will post information on how to send condolences to the Ricks family when we receive it.

Brendan Mullen is recovering with burns on approximately 15 percent of his body. He is stable and will require skin grafts. Cards and letters of support for him can be sent to Helena National Forest, ATTN: Helena Aviation Center, 2880 Skyway Drive, Helena, MT 59602. You can also follow his progress and wish him well at CaringBridge.

The Regional Forester arrived to meet with Desoto District employees. Critical Response Protocol Teams arrived to assist employees. ASC Benefits Counselors have been assigned to assist affected employees/families. The helicopter fuselage has been removed from the site. The Southern Area (Red) Type 1 Incident Management Team is providing facilitation/coordination and information flow between the Critical Stress Protocol Teams and Forest employees.

The Team will continue to provide facilitation, coordination, and information flow between the National Forests in Mississippi and the Desoto Ranger District with the National Transportation Safety Board, Critical Response Protocol Teams, Albuquerque Service Center and local law enforcement, fire department and affected businesses. The Red Team will initiate planning for memorial service tentatively scheduled for Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4.


(Originally published at 11:48 a.m. MDT, April 1, 2015)

In addition to the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Stephanie Johnson, a spokesperson for the U. S. Forest Service, said the agency has dispatched three teams to manage the helicopter crash incident in southern Mississippi on the Desoto National Forest.

Two were killed in the crash, pilot Brandon Wicks of T & M Aviation, and Stephen W. Cobb of the USFS. Supervisory Forestry Technician Brendan Mullen of the USFS was injured and transported to a hospital.

A short version of Mike Dueitt’s Type 1 Incident Management Team was ordered on March 30. Typically on an incident like this an IMT will handle operational details, as well as work with the families of the victims to plan the final arrangements including in some cases a memorial service that might be attended by a large number of people.

A Critical Response Protocol team will be reviewing the accident to determine if there are any lessons to be learned.

And finally, a Critical Incident Stress team will assist employees and others in recovering emotionally from the tragedy.

Victims identified in Mississippi helicopter crash

The victims in Monday’s helicopter crash have been identified. WLOX reports that the Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said the pilot, Brandon Ricks, 40, of Oklahoma died of smoke inhalation. The other man killed in the crash, Steven W. Cobb, 55, of Wiggins died of multiple blunt force trauma.

Mr. Hargrove said Mr. Cobb worked for the U.S. Forest Service and Mr. Ricks worked for T & M Aviation out of Oklahoma.

U.S. Forest Service Supervisory Forestry Technician Brendan Mullen was injured and transported from the site to a hospital by helicopter.

The firefighters were working on a prescribed fire in southern Mississippi on the Desoto National Forest about 25 miles northwest of Biloxi.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a statement on Tuesday, saying, “The loved ones and colleagues of Brendan, Steve, and Brandon Ricks, who also lost his life in the crash, are in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. On behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture, I thank them for risking their lives to protect us, our homes and natural resources.”


Two killed when helicopter crashes while working on a prescribed fire in Mississippi

(UPDATED at 9:55 a.m. CDT, March 31, 2015)

A helicopter crashed in southern Mississippi on March 30, 2015, killing two people who were working on a prescribed fire. Mario Rossilli, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said one of the deceased worked for the USFS and the other was the pilot of the helicopter under contract with the USFS. The person that was injured was also a USFS employee. Their names have not been released.

This video has a little more information than the one we posted on Monday. – The News for South Mississippi


Originally published at 9:03 p.m. CDT, March 30, 2015 Two people were killed and one was injured March 30 when a helicopter crashed while working on a prescribed fire on the Desoto National Forest in southern Mississippi. Below is an excerpt from NBC news: 

The helicopter, a Bell 206L-1, went down about 3 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) near Saucier, about 25 miles northwest of Biloxi, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed. The NTSB said it would lead the investigation. “We do have two confirmed fatalities,” Harrison County Fire Chief Pat Sullivan told reporters. The third crew member was airlifted to the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, he said. The men were contract workers who were monitoring a controlled burn of about 800 acres in De Soto National Forest, authorities said.

  From WLOX:

An eyewitness told WLOX News he saw the chopper working the fire, and could tell something didn’t seem right. “The helicopter was circling around the fire and within the next couple of minutes I saw it. It was landing on purpose, but it sounded like a little maybe in distress. But then shortly there after a rescue came in and was wanting to know how to get back there,” said Earnest Richardson Junior. “You could tell something was wrong at the end of it, but I didn’t know it was that bad. It kinda looked like he was almost landing for a minute. But like I said, I’m not sure because it circled around the fire. I thought maybe he was trying to land.”

Our sincere condolences go out to their families and co-workers.

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