The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has released an interim report about the January 23, 2020 crash of a C-130, Air Tanker 134, that killed the three crewmembers on board. This follows the preliminary report the agency issued in February, 2020. The aircraft was known as Bomber 134 (B134) in Australia.
“The interim report does not contain findings nor identify safety issues, which will be contained in the final report. However, it does detail the extensive evidence gathered to date, which has helped ATSB investigators develop a detailed picture of this tragic accident’s sequence of events,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood.
It was very windy on January 23, with a forecast for the possibility of mountain waves. Before the incident a birddog, similar to a lead plane, and Bomber 137 (B137), formerly Tanker 138, a Boeing 737 that Coulson sold to New South Wales, was tasked to drop on a fire in the Adaminaby area. Based on the weather the birddog pilot declined the assignment. After B137 made a drop on the fire, the crew reported having experienced uncommanded aircraft rolls up to 45° angle of bank (due to wind) and a windshear warning from the aircraft on‑board systems.
After completing the drop, the B137 crew sent a text message to the birddog pilot indicating that the conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody and we’re not going back.” They also reported to the Cooma FCC that the conditions were unsuitable for firebombing operations. During B137’s return flight to Richmond, the Richmond air base manager requested that they reload the aircraft in Canberra and return to Adaminaby. The Pilot in Command (PIC) replied that they would not be returning to Adaminaby due to the weather conditions.
B134 was dispatched to the fire at Adaminaby. While they were in route, the PIC of B137 called to inform them of the actual conditions, and that B137 would not be returning to Adaminaby.
After arriving at Adaminaby the PIC of B134 contacted the air operations officer at the Cooma FCC by radio and advised them that it was too smoky and windy to complete a retardant drop at that location. The Cooma air operations officer then provided the crew with the location of the Good Good Fire, about 58 km to the east of Adaminaby, with the objective of conducting structure and property protection near Peak View. Again, there was no birddog operating with the air tanker.
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, 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 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.
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.
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’.
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 issued at 0947 forecast severe turbulence below 10,000 ft.
The aerodrome forecast for the Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport 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
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
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.
Eastern Daylight-saving Time (EDT): Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 11 hours.
From the video, it was unclear if the aircraft flew behind the smoke or entered the smoke.
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.
The Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport has an elevation of 3,106 ft.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
It is an EC-130Q, one of only 12 that were manufactured. The model began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Some of them still have the remains of a vent in front of the main landing gear for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.
Tanker 134 (N134CG, Serial #382-4904) was manufactured in 1981. Coulson began converting it into an air tanker in early 2017. At that time it looked like it was far from what it later became.
By August of 2018 it was essentially complete, but still had not been painted. During the 2018/2019 bushfire season it was in Australia on its first firefighting contract. Its first drop on a wildfire occurred around November 1, 2018 a few kilometers away from NASA’s Deep Space Network of satellite antennas near Canberra, Australia.
It continued to serve throughout the bushfire season and by April, 2019 it received new livery after migrating back to the U.S.
During the 2019 fire season in the United States T-134 was on a contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was seen across the state that summer, and for a while operated out of Ramona, an airport with a relatively short runway that presents a challenge for some large air tankers.
In August November or December, 2019 it began working in Australia again.
Tanker 134 had been working on a contract in Australia since August, 2019.
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.
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.
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.