Night-flying air tanker crashes while working on wildfire in Colorado

The pilot was killed

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Updated at 4:56 p.m. MST Nov. 17, 2021

Wednesday afternoon CO Fire Aviation released a statement that identified the pilot who was killed Nov. 16 during a night-flying air tanker mission on the Kruger Rock Fire southeast of Estes Park, Colorado.

The CO Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers serving as a tanker pilot. Marc Thor Olson was a highly decorated veteran of both the Army and Air Force with 32 years of service to our country. During Thor’s 42 years of flight, he had amassed more than 8,000 total flight hours with an impressive 1,000 hours of NVG flight including in combat and civilian flight.

Co Fire maintains a close working relationship with multi regulatory agencies and is fully cooperating with the proper authorities and partners during this investigation.

While we are gravely aware of the inherent dangers of aerial fire fighting and the questions that remain; we ask that family and friends be given distance and time to process and heal as we grieve this loss. Your prayers are appreciated during this difficult time.

A preliminary map appears to show that the fire was just inside the boundary of the Roosevelt National Forest. The Larimer County Sheriff’s office said on Wednesday that as of 7 a.m. Wednesday the fire was managed by a unified command with the US Forest Service and the Sheriff. In Colorado the local county sheriffs are given the responsibility for suppressing wildfires outside of cities unless they are on federal land.

Map, Kruger Rock Fire
The map shows the approximate location of the Kruger Rock Fire. It is based heat detected by satellites as late as 1:40 p.m. MST Nov. 16, 2021. Clouds degraded the ability of satellites to obtain good quality data.

The crash occurred at about 6:35 p.m MST on Tuesday Nov. 16 while attempting to suppress the fire. This was about 1 hour and 49 minutes after sunset, and was the first time a fixed wing air tanker had dropped fire suppressant on a fire at night in Colorado.

11:29 p.m. MST Nov. 16, 2021

AT-802F single engine air tanker
File photo of the aircraft that crashed November 16, 2021. Air Tractor AT-802A, N802NZ, owned by CO Fire Aviation. Photo by Aviation Specialties Unlimited September, 2018.

An air tanker that was working the Kruger Rock Fire southeast of Estes Park, Colorado Tuesday night November 16 crashed, killing the pilot, the only person on board. The Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) had taken off from Northern Colorado Regional Airport, formerly known as the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport, at 6:13 p.m. MST Nov. 16 and disappeared from flight tracking 22 minutes later at 6:35 p.m. MST. Earlier in the day it departed from the Fort Morgan, Colorado airport, orbited the fire about half a dozen times, then landed at Northern Colorado Regional Airport at 4:38 p.m. MST.

The incident was first reported by KUSA, 9News in Denver. Marc Sallinger, reporter for the station, had interviewed the pilot earlier in the day, and wrote on Twitter, “My thoughts and prayers are with the pilot who took off tonight, so excited for this history-making flight. He told me ‘this is the culmination of 5 years of hard work.’ He showed me his night vision goggles and how they worked. He was so kind. Holding out hope for him.”

Eyewitnesses reported the crash at approximately 6:37 p.m., but in the dark it was very difficult to pinpoint the location. After three hours of searching, firefighters found it near the south end of Hermit Park. Unfortunately the pilot was deceased.

The aircraft was an Air Tractor 802A, registration number N802NZ, owned by CO Fire Aviation. In 2018 we wrote about the company’s efforts to configure this aircraft for fighting fires at night. Helicopters have been doing it off and on for decades, but a fixed wing air tanker dropping retardant on a fire at night is extremely rare. In 2020 and 2021 CO Fire Aviation had one of their SEATs working on a night-flying contract in Oregon. The company says they are the only operators of night-flying fixed wing air tankers.

Earlier this year a video was posted on YouTube that featured CO Fire Aviation conducting a night-flying demonstration at Loveland, Colorado. That segment begins at 8:15 in the video.

At 6 p.m. the Larimer County Sheriff’s office said the Kruger Rock Fire had burned about 133 acres. More information about the fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the pilot’s family, friends, and coworkers.

The article was edited to show that the crash was first reported by KUSA, 9News in Denver.

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

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

14 thoughts on “Night-flying air tanker crashes while working on wildfire in Colorado”

  1. Thoughts and Prayers for the pilot’s family, friends, and all those who are working these Fires.

  2. This is really horrible. Sounds like strong winds on Tuesday and he was flying in the dark after sunset, so I wonder what winds were like? But calmer winds are expected today, Wednesday.

    Maybe they should have waited for calmer, daytime conditions?

    People are pushing this incredibly dangerous tactics because we’ve lost the war on wildfire prevention, and the risk is always passed down by management to wildland firefighters.

    One thing I’ve learned is to write your headline before you do it, to stay safe.

    “Management Team orders SEAT drops in nightine wintery conditions while calmer weather and sunlight expected within the next twelve hours; pilot killed in crash.”

    What a shame.

  3. It seems to me that instead of “a couple of hours more at night” as one reporter put it, how about starting when the sun comes up instead of having pilots show up at 8 or 9 in the morning? There are the couple of hours you gain, plus it’s daylight, and it’s cooler so the fire is laying down, seems like a win win to me. I have never understood S.E.A.T.S. starting late in the morning.

  4. Leaves me with an awful feeling in my gut. While stationed in Chester, Ca this year, assigned to the Dixie fire, I met one of the rotating teams from these tankers. The pilot I spoke with flew from fire to fire to relieve pilots for their days off. And, just like the reporter described the pilot who was killed in Colorado, the pilot I spoke with was the nicest and most personable guy… I don’t know if it was him, but my thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and co workers of the brave and selfless pilot who tragically gave his life so others might live.

  5. Good point, rarely do you see ac coming on early (able to fly 1/2 hour before sunrise) because of duty days and usually the need to keep them on late in the day. Stagger the schedules so you have ac on all day. Horrible loss.

  6. The winds were very strong up there yesterday ahead of a cold front, right into the evening. Anyone familiar with the Estes Valley in winter knows its a wind tunnel, with terrain driven, battling winds.

  7. The Larimer County Sheriff owns this tragedy, it was his hubris that killed this man, an utter and complete cascade of failures. Ask yourself, what was a single SEAT going to do on this stalled out fire that couldn’t have waited till morning? We’re crashing tankers left and right and killing pilots in daytime VFR conditions. Let’s get daytime flight right before we go flying FW low level flights, at night, with no Lead Plane or Aerial Supervision!!! Add to the fact that the winds moderated today and the fire received snow overnight. My heart goes out to this pilot, COfire and his family but somebody at LCSO needs to fry for this totally avoidable tragedy!

  8. Bill, wondering if you knew this flight was going to happen?

    Just interesting seeing it stacked up with the increasing nighttime activity article hours before it happened, seems like an odd coincidence along with the SEAT taking several flights over the fire in daylight before landing and talking to reporters about gow this was going to be the first nighttime drop? Just a unique drop sequence, I haven’t ever seen on top of media, then Matt’s comment above about it being a stunt. Don’t know squat about this other than your site, but a head scratcher all around.

  9. Thoughts and condolences to friends and family members. As a retired Cal Fire ATGS I was first drawn to this article because I am not a fan of night flying. However after reading the article and comments I see that this is NOT a good example of why there should not be night flying. This article is rater an example of many many mistakes leading to the tragedy. It is my understanding that Cal Fire / Region 5 have strict protocols for night flying. It appears to me if any of these protocols were in place in Colorado, none were followed.

  10. Hoby, no, I did not know about the flight until one of our readers notified me about the crash. Then in researching it, I discovered the afternoon flight, which turned out to be a water drop. More information is in the new article published today.

Comments are closed.