Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia

September 25, 2020  |  5:23 p.m. MDT

Flight path B134 air tanker crash

This article was first published at Fire Aviation September 24, 2020

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.

Tanker 134 at Medford, Oregon
Tanker 134 (B134) at Medford, Oregon July 27, 2019. Photo by Tim Crippin.

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.

B134 flight path air tanker crash
Flight path overview (in white), including the times and locations of where the crew of B134 was in communication with others. From the report.

Analysis of a witness video confirmed that the aircraft initially established a positive rate of climb and was banking to the left following the retardant drop, the report details. Continue reading “Report released for fatal crash of C-130 air tanker in Australia”

Colorado hopes to increase size of aerial firefighting fleet during the pandemic

The DFPC is requesting three additional air tankers and one helicopter

CR34 Fire in southeast Colorado
The CR34 Fire in southeast Colorado 10 miles south of Springfield, February 13, 2019. Baca County Sheriff’s Office photo.

(This article first appeared at FireAviation.com)

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) wishes to obtain additional aircraft for their firefighting fleet during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter to Governor Jared Polis and members of the General Assembly, the Director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Mike Morgan, will be requesting $7.7 million to add three air tankers, a helicopter, and a fixed wing aircraft in order to provide aggressive initial attack and to supplement the limited number of ground resources available during the pandemic.

Currently the state owns two Multi-Mission Aircraft used for mapping reconnaissance. On contract they have two Exclusive Use (EU) Helicopters each with 12-person DFPC Helitack Crews, two EU Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS), and three Call-When-Needed (CWN) SEAT contracts.

If approved by the Governor and the Assembly the additional aircraft, all on EU contracts, would include one large air tanker on a 120-day contract, two single engine air tankers (SEATs) on 150-day contracts, a Type 2 helicopter on a 120-day contract, and an Air Attack fixed-wing aircraft on a 180-day contract for aerial supervision and airspace coordination.

The 747 SuperTanker is on a CWN contract with Colorado but it needs to take and pass another grid test before it can be used on a fire in the United States. It has been certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board on an interim basis, but that has expired. After having made modifications to the retardant delivery system, the operator, Global SuperTanker, believes the aircraft will pass the test, but scheduling it during the pandemic has proved to be difficult.

Colorado also has a CWN contract for a P-3 large air tanker operated by Airstrike.

The state’s Wildfire Emergency Response Fund (WERF), part of an effort to keep fires small, provides funding or reimbursement for the first air tanker flight or the first hour of a firefighting helicopter, and/or two days of a wildfire hand crew at the request any county sheriff, municipal fire department, or fire protection district.

The firefighting goals of the DFPC include:

  • Generating an incident assessment for every fire within 60 minutes of request or detection.
  • Delivering the appropriate aviation suppression resources to every fire within 60 minutes of the request.
  • Providing on-scene technical assistance and support within 90 minutes of request for support from a local agency.

Colorado has beefed up their ground resources this year, adding three additional 10-person modules (hand crews) which raises the total number of modules to four, with one in each quadrant of the state.

Colorado wildfires 2002 - 2019
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control

The DFPC continues to partner with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to increase the availability of bulldozers, road graders, and other heavy equipment for wildfire suppression. To date, 75 CDOT equipment operators have received basic training.

Like other firefighting organizations, Colorado realizes that the pandemic is likely to reduce the availability and productivity of firefighters. Staffing of Incident Management Teams (IMTs) may be constrained by a reduced number of personnel who are available to leave their home jurisdictions. The DFPC is developing cadre lists of State and local personnel who can form multiple Type 3 IMTs for suppressing wildfires.

The cost per gallon of dropping retardant

We calculated the cost per gallon of delivering retardant on a wildfire for several different models of air tankers

MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire
An MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire east of Springville, Utah. Photo by Jocelyn Marie Cooley.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation

On February 12 I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

The next day I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Three fatalities after air tanker crash in Australia

New South Wales January 23

Tanker 134
Tanker 134 as it started a new contract with CAL FIRE. Coulson photo, April 11, 2019.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.

Updated at 6:01 a.m. PST January 23, 2020 (US time)

A C-130Q air tanker (N134CG) crashed in southern New South Wales Thursday January 23 (Australia time). All three members of the crew perished.

Coulson Aviation released a statement saying their aircraft, Tanker 134, had departed from Richmond NSW on a firebombing mission and went down in the Snowy Monaro area. There were three fatalities.

(UPDATE: the three men have been identified)

Tanker 134 had been working on a contract in Australia since August, 2019.

Tanker 134 (N134CG)
The last flight path of Tanker 134 (N134CG) recorded by FlightAware, January 23, 2020 U.S. local time.

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.

map crash tanker 134
The marker shows the location of Tanker 134 that was last recorded on FlightAware.
location Tanker 134 crash
This Google Earth 3-D map shows the general location of Tanker 134 last recorded by FlightAware. The map is looking north.

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.

@aus_forum
Posted at 7:22 PST January 22, 2019 (US time)

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.

Australia beefs up their air tanker fleet

New South Wales has been experiencing hot, dry weather for several days, resulting in numerous bushfires that have burned more than 100 homes

Above: DC-10 Tanker 911 on the Robbers Fire in California July 15, 2012. Photo by David Wilson.

This article first appeared at FireAviation.com

Due to an unusually high level of bushfire activity Australia has contracted for two additional air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), said the aircraft were added using the NAFC’s system of Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contracts.

On November 12, U.S. time, Tanker 911, a DC-10, was loading spare parts onto the aircraft and is expected to be fire-ready in Richmond, New South Wales on November 16. It is supplied by Agair/10 Tanker. The DC-10 is considered a Very Large Air Tanker and can carry up to 9,400 gallons (35,582 liters).

The other EWCN air tanker added to the fleet is a Coulson C-130Q with an enter on duty date of November 29, also at Richmond. It usually carries around 3,500 gallons (13,248 liters).

Australia's large and very large air tanker fleet
Australia’s fleet of large and very large air tankers, updated November 13, 2019. The dates are DD/MM. Information provided by NAFC.

There are also changes on the rotor wing side. One of the most significant additions is a ECWN contract for a Blackhawk with long line bucket based at Toowoomba in Queensland.  The helicopter is suppled through Kestrel Aviation (who are partnered with BHI2/Brainerd).

Recent additions bring the total number of firebombing aircraft in Australia to 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.

Number of large air tankers on USFS contracts drops

There are 13 exclusive use, and 8 call when needed. Three fewer than last year on CWN list.

(This article first appeared on Fire Aviation)

The list of large and very large air tankers has changed since 2018. The number on the very coveted exclusive use (EU) contracts is the same, 13, but there are three fewer on call when needed contracts (CWN), 8. This could change later in the year but today there are a total of 21 air tankers on both types of contracts, down from 24 last year.

Aero Flite, Aero Air, and Neptune all swapped out some EU aircraft but each still has the same number of allocated slots.

Air Tanker List
Air tankers under U.S. Forest Service Contract, August 12, 2019. Source: USFS.

On the CWN list, Aero Flite went from four to one aircraft and Coulson dropped their L-382G and substituted a B-737 which began working in North America for the first time last week. Neptune swapped some of their BAe-146s but 10 tanker did not make any changes on either list.

Today when we asked Kaari Carpenter, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service, when the agency was going to offer air tanker contracts based on the call when needed solicitation issued May 30, 2018, she said, “We expect an award on this contract very soon.”

The 2019 wildfire season has been much slower than average so far this year, which is fortunate considering the small number of air tankers available on Forest Service contracts — from 44 in 2002 on EU contracts down to 13.

So far this year a total of 3.6M acres have burned in the U.S., compared with 4.6M for the average to date. It has been far busier than usual in Alaska accounting for 2.4M acres, two-thirds of the U.S. total. Only 1.2M acres have burned in the other 49 states — which I estimate is approximately one-third of the average.