NTSB releases report on crash of Wisconsin DNR plane

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DNR plane crash

The National Transportation Safety Board has released the report on the fatal accident involving a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aircraft that crashed while it was monitoring a wildfire near Marshfield on April 8, 2009, killing the pilot, 36-year old Heath Van Handel.

The NTSB said the aircraft crashed because it stalled, failing to maintain an adequate air speed.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune:

“Heath (Van Handel) was the greatest guy,” said John Jorgensen, the DNR section chief for aeronautics, Van Handel’s supervisor. “He represented the future of DNR aeronautics.”

According to the report:

Van Handel left a Necedah airport at about 2:11 p.m. that day to observe and provide information to firefighters. They were battling a wildfire that authorities said started because of garbage burning on a property adjacent to a wooded area.

The Rock Fire Department deputy chief saw the plane circle high above the ground and then descend to an altitude of about 35 feet. He heard the engine get louder about five seconds before the left wing dropped, and the plane crashed.

A DNR representative told investigators pilots fly at an airspeed near the range that would cause the planes to stall. The pilots go more by feel than by the instruments.

Jorgensen said the comments were wrong, and he has been working to get them removed from the report. Pilots do not routinely fly that low or that slowly, Jorgensen said.

The department didn’t make any changes as a result of the crash, Jorgensen said. However, other pilots were reminded to keep a safe altitude and speed when spotting for fires.

Trent Marty, the DNR’s director of Bureau of Forest Protection, said DNR pilots have a low-altitude waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration. Pilots train to fly at the low altitudes and slower speeds needed when observing fires.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.