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.

Air tanker base opens at Austin

Air Tankers 15 and 131 at Austin
Air Tankers 15 and 131 at Austin, August 18, 2019. Texas Forest Service photo.

Two large air tankers, T-131 and T-15, have been dispatched to the recently reopened Air Tanker Base at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to assist with increased wildfire activity across the state. The portable base was first established at Austin in 2017.

Significant fire activity has increased recently, particularly in northwest Texas, Central Texas and the Cross Timbers region where hot and dry conditions persist and fuel loading is high. Critical fuel dryness is expanding across South Texas, the Hill Country and Rolling Plains as rainfall deficits continue to build across large portions of the state.

During periods of high fire activity, aviation resources are used to support suppression efforts on the ground, aiding in the protection of structures and other valuable resources. “This year, we’ve utilized helicopters and single engine air tankers for wildfire response in areas with increased wildfire activity,” said Cynthia Foster, Texas A&M Forest Service Planning and Preparedness Department Head. “However, we could have a large, intense fire at any time so we want to be prepared and have additional aircraft ready to respond.”

Opening the airtanker base will allow for faster response times and greater cost efficiency when responding to wildfires across the state. “The airtanker’s speed is greater than that of a helicopter or single engine air tanker. These aircraft will be able to get anywhere in Texas in under one hour,” says George Martin, Air Operations Branch Director. “An airtanker can drop a line of retardant in front of a subdivision of homes, slowing the spread of the fire and allowing ground units time to respond.”

The base, equipped to handle all aircraft in the national airtanker fleet, will be staffed by trained and qualified Texas A&M Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Austin Fire Department firefighting personnel.

Texas A&M Forest Service does not own any aviation resources but instead uses federal aviation contracts through the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for all firefighting aircraft.


The article was edited to replace a file photo of an air tanker with one taken at Austin August 18, 2019.

Firefighter killed in Texas helicopter crash

(UPDATED at 2:16 p.m. MDT March 28, 2019)

 

The firefighter that died in the Texas helicopter crash on March 27 has been identified by the U.S. Forest Service as Daniel Laird, a Captain on the Tahoe Helitack crew in California. He leaves behind a wife and young daughter.

One source tells us that the other passenger was also a USFS firefighter who was sitting in the front seat when the aircraft went down, but reportedly walked away and was treated and released from a hospital.

Daniel_J_Laird
Daniel J. Laird. Tahoe National Forest photo.

The pilot was also transported to a hospital in stable condition, according to the information reported yesterday by Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Below is a letter from the USFS Regional Forester in California:

“You may have already heard from Secretary Perdue and Chief Christiansen that we lost one of our own, Daniel Laird, yesterday, in a helicopter accident while conducting a prescribed burn with our Region 8 partners on the Sam Houston National Forest in Texas. Daniel was 41 years old and leaves behind his wife Heather and daughter Evain.

“Daniel started as a seasonal firefighter on the Tahoe [National Forest] and worked his way up to Helitack Captain. His passion was in aviation, but he was also known for his ability to lead a strike team of engines or a task force of hand crews and heavy equipment. He was a true leader in every sense. He was dedicated to being an instructor and a believer in the apprentice program, where he helped grow people just like himself. Daniel was originally from Graeagle, CA, and committed his working life to the Forest Service. He was extremely knowledgeable about his craft and loved his job. He had an infectious smile, natural physical talent, and his greatest love of all was his family.

“Our Forest Service family is hurting over this tremendous loss. It is an emotional time and Daniel’s loss can impact even the strongest among us. We grieve with Daniel’s immediate family, friends, and community. Please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers. The Region is providing support to the Tahoe and all who need it as they digest this sad news. I will pass more details on arrangements once they become available.

“Please continue to look out for one another and take care of one another.”

Randy Moore
Regional Forester
USFS R5


(UPDATED at 9:07 a.m. CDT March 28, 2019)

The deceased firefighter was a U.S. Forest Service employee who, along with the other firefighter and the pilot, were on an aerial ignition mission. Their equipment was dropping plastic spheres that burst into flame after hitting the ground, helping to ignite the prescribed fire. No names have been released.


(Originally published at 7:17 p.m. CDT March 27, 2019)

One firefighter was killed in the crash of a helicopter today while working on a prescribed fire in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.

Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Eurocopter AS350 went down at about 2 p.m. with three people on board, a pilot and two firefighters. One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital in stable condition after rescuers extracted them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

map helicopter crash sam houston national forest
Map showing heat in the Sam Houston National Forest detected by a satellite at 2:38 p.m. CDT March 27, 2019. There is a possibility the heat could have been produced by a prescribed fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of the firefighter, and we hope for a speedy recovery of the injured personnel.

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

Videos of firefighting aircraft in action

air tanker 137 737 wildfire
This is not a video, but it is a screengrab from the video below of Air Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia. Usually it is not obvious when an air tanker drops simultaneously from more than one tank, but on the 737 the tanks are not adjacent to each other, making it possible to see the separation when the drop begins.

The video below shows Air Tanker 137, a Boeing 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia.

A Blackhawk and an Air-Crane can be seen in the video below working on a wildfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Next, a Blackhawk in New South Wales.

Below, two helicopters work a fire north of Canadian, Texas.

Below, CAL FIRE helicopter 301 makes a swift water rescue.

Air tanker traffic in Abilene heavier than average

Posted on Categories Fixed wingTags ,
Abilene Air Tanker Base
Air tankers at the Abilene Air Tanker Base. Screen grab from the KTAB video.

The air tanker base at Abilene Regional Airport has been busier than usual so far this year.

The four large air tankers stationed there Wednesday is the most they have had in one day since 2011.

Video from Tanker 580 in Texas

This video was probably shot February 28 from Single Engine Air Tanker 580 while it was working on the Prison Fire in Texas. If you don’t want to watch all eight minutes, check out what appears to be a drop run at 2:40. Be sure your seat belt is fastened! And, put it in full screen mode.

I’m thinking the pilot has experience flying crop dusters.

Air tanker base to be established at Austin, Texas

The base will be formally unveiled February 16, 2017.

tanker 42 at Rapid City

Above: Air Tanker 43, a P2V, at the permanent (not portable) Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21, 2017 during the Myrtle Fire.

A new portable air tanker base is being established at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas. The funds for the equipment were provided by the Texas Legislature through the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan.

This is the second portable base in Texas capable of refilling air tankers with long term fire retardant. The other is based in Abilene.

“This tanker base represents a monumental advancement in wildfire preparedness for our area,” said state Rep. John Cyrier, whose Central Texas district includes communities affected by the 2015 Hidden Pines Fire and the 2011 Bastrop Complex of Fires. Together, these fires burned 39,000 acres and destroyed more than 1700 homes.

The equipment will have the capacity to refill large air tankers which typically hold between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons. Bob Griffin of Representative Cyrier’s office could not say for sure if it could refill Very Large Air Tankers such as the 11,600-gallon DC-10 or the 19,200-gallon 747.

An agreement between the Texas A&M Forest Service, Austin Fire Department, and the Austin airport will make onsite real estate and tarmac space available at the airport for staging and operations as well as onsite quarters for flight crews, according to a press release.

Firefighters from the Austin Fire Department and surrounding areas will be trained on the operation of the equipment. The presence of the tanker base, together with local trained emergency personnel, will increase the speed with which air tankers can be mobilized to fight wildfires in central Texas. The equipment is portable and can be moved to fight wildfires in other parts of the state.

Helicopter assisting firefighters on the Powerline Fire in Texas

Powerline Fire helicopter

The Powerline Fire in Big Bend National Park in south Texas has burned about 1,790 acres as of 5 p.m. CST on Thursday. A Type 3 helicopter and the park’s fixed wing aircraft are assisting firefighters. A downed powerline during gusty, hot winds ignited the fire on Monday, February 1.

More information is at Wildfire Today.

The photos above were supplied by the National Park Service.