NTSB preliminary report on fatal helicopter crash in Arizona does not determine cause

The accident occurred July 7, 2020 on the Polles Fire west of Payson, Arizona

Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman
Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman

On July 7, 2020 a UH-1H helicopter crashed while transporting supplies to firefighters who were spiked out (camping) while working on the Polles Fire about 10 miles west of Payson, Arizona. The only person on board, pilot Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman, 37, of Litchfield Park, Arizona was killed. We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Boatman, and to the forestry technicians who were at the fire.

The brief preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not mention any obvious causes for the crash, which happened while transporting firefighters’ equipment in an external sling load. Multiple personnel on the ground observed the helicopter flying erratically until finally “it entered a steep nose up attitude and then descended rapidly,” according to the report. Fire personnel saw no signs of fire before the crash and all major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site.

Polles Fire vicinity map
Polles Fire vicinity map

BJ was born on June 8, 1983 in Provo, Utah. He was a third-generation pilot and worked alongside his parents to build their company, Airwest Helicopters of Glendale, Arizona.

3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020
3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020; looking north.

The helicopter, N623PB, serial number 64-13689, was manufactured in 1964. It is a UH-1H registered to Aero Leasing in Glendale, Arizona, the same city where Air West Helicopters is located.

Polles Fire - Payson helicopter crash fatality
Airwest Helicopters photo, N623PB.

In addition to the preliminary report released by the NTSB, a 23-page facilitated learning analysis (FLA) was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The FLA is solely devoted to analyzing the response to the accident — the Incident Within an Incident and the actions taken in the following days. It does not address what caused the helicopter to crash. The report found very little to criticize and praised most of the actions that were taken. It goes into quite a bit of detail about how the fire’s Incident Management Team handled the emergency response during the first few hours, as well as organizing over the next several days to care for BJ’s family and the forestry technicians that were witnesses to the crash or were otherwise affected.

Anyone who could in the future find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation would benefit from reading this FLA. Firefighting is dangerous, in the air and on the ground, and others will have to walk this same path.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Below is the text from the narrative portion of the three-page NTSB report. The complete report which will analyze the cause, might be released within the next year.

“On July 7, 2020, about 1213 mountain standard time, a Bell/Garlick UH-1H helicopter, N623PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Payson, Arizona. The pilot was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 external load flight.

Illustration from the NTSB report
Figure 1: Depiction of helicopter flight path based on witness statements. From the NTSB preliminary report.

“The helicopter was owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC and operated by the United States Forest Service at the time of the accident. According to witnesses, the helicopter was transporting supplies using a long line for a hotshot firefighting crew that were repositioning on the ground. The pilot transported three loads to the new destination uneventfully prior to the accident and had been using an indirect route to the north to avoid a fire area (Figure 1). While transporting the fourth load, witnesses observed the helicopter begin to fly erratically while en route to its destination. During this time, a witness stated that he observed the helicopter enter a high nose-up pitch attitude and the external payload began to swing. The helicopter then displayed irregular movements for several seconds before the external payload settled and the helicopter appeared to stabilize. However, after about 3 seconds, multiple witnesses observed  The witnesses did not observe the helicopter on fire during the accident flight, nor did the pilot report any anomalies over the helicopter crew’s common air-to-ground radio frequency or any other assigned frequencies for the fire.

“The helicopter wreckage came to rest about 0.5 nm north of its drop off destination, oriented on a heading of 074° magnetic and was mostly consumed by postcrash fire. All major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site. The helicopter’s external payload was found 123 ft southeast of the main wreckage.

“The wreckage was retained for further examination.”

Polles Fire
Smoke from the Polles Fire, posted July 6, 2020. InciWeb.

Report: Firefighter killed on August Complex was assisting with backfiring operation

The firefighter was the engine boss on a contract engine from Texas working on the fire in Northern California

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

Additional information now available about the circumstances in which a firefighter was killed August 31 on the August Complex of fires in northern California reveals that the tragedy occurred during a  backfiring operation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported details about the fatality after receiving documents from CAL FIRE obtained through a public records request.

Diana Jones Cresson Volunteer Fire Department, Texas
Diana Jones (Photo by Cresson Volunteer Fire Department)

Diana Jones, 63, from Cresson, Texas, was the engine boss of a three-person contract engine crew that was assigned to the fire on the Mendocino National Forest. Along with supervisors and at least one other engine they were on a 20-foot wide logging road igniting and holding a mid-slope backfire below the road.

view of accident site
Google Earth 3-D view of accident site

When a spot fire occurred above the road Jones’ crew applied water on the fire. The spot fire continued to grow and then the fire in the drainage below the road intensified. The supervisor ordered the crew to “Get out of there!” but Jones could not hear the command. The driver got out of the engine to tell her that they had to leave, and then picked up a nozzle to knock down the flames.

At that time Jones got in the driver’s seat in order to move the truck  but another engine farther up the road had turned around to come back to help. With the narrow dirt road then blocked by the second engine in the front and two other vehicles to the rear, the driver, still dismounted, told her to follow him or her toward the second engine.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

As the engine’s back-up alarm beeped, signaling the vehicle was in reverse, Jones’ right wheels inched closer to the edge. The commander yelled over the radio: “E1, stop, stop, stop, stop … stop!”

The engine tumbled off the dirt shoulder, the report said, slamming into a tree about 15 feet below.

“Vehicle over side, in the fire,” a commander radioed, asking for air support.

The firefighter in the backseat tried to pull Jones out of the engine, as windows popped and shattered from the heat, but the temperature became too intense. The firefighter exited the driver’s-side rear door and crawled to the road with burns to the legs, arms, hands and face, the report said.

The task force leader put on breathing apparatus to search for Jones and the engine operator, but Jones suffered “fatal thermal injuries due to the engine burn over,” Cal Fire concluded. The report does not indicate whether the preemptive backfire or the larger conflagration ultimately burned Jones.

The Chronicle’s article had a little background information about Jones:

Jones had joined the Cresson volunteers five years ago after her husband died and she moved closer to her two sons. She had worked as a hairdresser and in logistics in the Middle East, said Ron Becker, chief of the small Texas fire department.

“She took to it aggressively and very well,” said Becker, adding she got her license as an emergency medical technician and certification in wildfire fighting. “I would never suggest to you that she didn’t know what she was doing and I’d never suggest that she wasn’t totally capable of what she was doing.”

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

Forest Service says firefighter killed on El Dorado Fire was burned over

Charles Morton was killed on the Southern California fire September 17, 2020

Charles Morton
Charles Morton, USFS photo.

A brief report released by the U.S. Forest Service states that Charles Morton who died September 17, 2020 on the El Dorado Fire in Southern California was “burned over” by the fire. The term means the fire spread to his location.  Other information released by the agency provided no information about the circumstances of the fatality other than he died during suppression activities.

The information was contained in a “72-Hour Report” dated September 24 that according to data at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was quietly uploaded to the site October 5, 2020.

The LA Times reported October 29 that the San Bernardino County coroner’s office confirmed that the burns were Morton’s official cause of death.

Investigators found that the El Dorado Fire was started by a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party at a park in Yucaipa, California. The fire has burned 22,744 acres and has required the expenditure of nearly $40 million in suppression costs to date. As of Thursday 94 personnel were still assigned to the fire.

Send cards and condolences to the Morton family here:
P.O. Box 63564
Irvine, CA 92602.

Mr. Morton was a member of the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew.

Carlos Alexander Baltazar

Another Big Bear crewmember has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Carlos Alexander Baltazar’s car was found abandoned on Highway 18 near Delta Avenue by the California Highway Patrol on September 20, about 75 yards from his backpack. His sister said on the driver’s seat was his ID, a money clip with $200, and on the passenger seat was a knife.

He still has not been found after extensive searches in the area.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office said Mr. Baltazar was was off duty when he abandoned his vehicle and was not in the area of the El Dorado Fire. His family said he was distressed over Morton’s death.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office said on September 28, “We have received information that possibly a Subaru was seen in the area and may have picked up Mr. Baltazar.”

Officials are asking anyone with information about Mr. Baltazar to contact the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department at (760) 956-5001.

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”

Off duty firefighter dies on Archie Creek Fire in Oregon

September 23, 2020 | 8:22 p.m. PDT

Archie Creek Fire map
Archie Creek Fire map, 2:35 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

A heavy equipment operator passed away on the Archie Creek Fire in Western Oregon. The Incident Management Team announced September 23 the death of Walter (Wally) Samuel Elsbury, Jr., who was found unresponsive in his vehicle at a staging area September 18, 2020 before he began his shift.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office responded and notified Mr. Elsbury’s family. No foul play is suspected.

Mr. Elsbury, of Elsbury Logging Company in Burns/Hines, Oregon, had been working on the fire for about a week as skidgeon operator. He was helping to protect structures along Little River Road south of Glide on the west flank of the fire.

“The Bureau of Land Management, Umpqua National Forest, and Douglas Forest Protective Association are deeply saddened over Mr. Elsbury’s death,” said Incident Commander Mike Dueitt. “We want the Elsbury family to know our Incident Management Team, the firefighting community as a whole, and the residents along Little River Road are forever grateful for the work Wally did to protect homes from the Archie Creek Fire. Our condolences to you for the loss of your loved one.”

The fire has burned 131,000 acres since it started on September 8.

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

Pilot identified in crash of air tanker in Idaho

Schill Fire
Schill Fire. BLM photo.

Updated September 23, 2020  |  3:40 p.m. MDT

The Bureau of Land Management has provided more information about the crash of a single engine air tanker:

“On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at approximately 7 p.m. MDT, a Single Engine Air Tanker with one pilot on board was involved in a fatal accident during initial attack operations on the Schill Fire, located approximately 2 miles southeast of Emmett.

“The pilot, Ricky Fulton, perished. The aircraft, T-857, was owned by Aero S.E.A.T. Incorporated and was on an on-call contract with BLM Fire and Aviation at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Firefighters on the scene rendered medical aid to the pilot and called for Life Flight, but the pilot did not survive his injuries.

“The 30-acre Schill Fire started at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22 in grass and brush in steep terrain. It was contained at approximately 10 p.m. on Tuesday. The cause of the Schill Fire is under investigation.”

Originally published September 23, 2020  |  8:58 a.m. MDT

The Bureau of Land Management announced that the pilot of a single engine air tanker (SEAT) was killed Tuesday evening September 22 while working on a wildfire near Emmett, Idaho. The agency said more information will be released following family notifications.

KTVB reported the accident occurred near Pearl Road about two miles southeast of Emmett. The fire started around 4:30 p.m. and grew to 25 acres as two SEATs and one helicopter assisted firefighters on the ground. According to the Gem County Sheriff’s Office, the air tanker was dropping retardant when it went down.

This is the sixth firefighting pilot and the third SEAT pilot to be killed in the United States this year. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Our sincere condolences go out to the pilot’s family, friends, and co-workers.

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