The Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) released the preliminary report on the crash of Coulson Aviation’s Tanker 134 on February 28th, 2020, detailing in part what happened on the fatal flight on January 23rd, 2020 that took the lives of crew members Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson, and Rick DeMorgan.
The crash drew a global response in mourning to those lost from across Australia and the USA as the New South Wales Rural Fire Service held a memorial service for the lost aviators on January 30th in New South Wales, Australia. The crew had been in service in Australia since November 2019 as record bushfires ravaged multiple states.
Coulson’s Tanker 134 was a former Navy C-130 that was outfitted with Coulson’s RADS XXL retardant delivery system capable of dropping 4000 gallons on each sortie, carrying US registration N134CG.
The Final Flight
Australia’s crash investigation body the ATSB noted that on the day of the fire, the aircraft departed at 1205 from Richmond RAAF Base, NSW where the majority of LAT operations were taking place. The crew had been tasked with a fire retardant drop over the ‘Adaminaby Complex’ bush fire. After approaching the Adaminaby complex fire, the drop was unable to be completed and the aircraft was diverted to a secondary tasking, to drop retardant on the ‘Good Good’ fire.
Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft complete a number of circuits, prior to completing the retardant drop. The drop was conducted on a heading of about 190°, at about 200 ft above ground level, with a drop time of approximately 2 seconds. The crew released about 1,200 US gallons (4,500 L) of fire retardant during the drop.
Witness videos taken of the aircraft leading up to the accident showed a number of passes conducted at varying heights prior to the retardant drop. Following the retardant drop, the aircraft was observed to bank left, before becoming obscured by smoke after about 5 seconds. A further 15 seconds after this, the aircraft was seen flying at a very low height above the ground, in a left-wing down attitude. Shortly after, at about 1316, the aircraft collided with terrain and a post-impact fuel-fed fire ensued. The three crew were fatally injured and the aircraft was destroyed.
The accident site was located on slightly sloping, partially wooded terrain, about 50 km north-east of the Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport. The wreckage trail (Figure 3) was approximately on a heading of 100°, with the initial impact at an elevation of about 3,440 ft above mean sea level.
The ATSB’s on-site examination of the wreckage, damage to the surrounding vegetation, and ground markings indicated that the aircraft initially impacted a tree in a left wing down attitude, before colliding with the ground. The post-impact fuel-fed fire destroyed the aircraft. The examination also found that an emergency dump of the fire retardant had not been activated.
The ATSB noted that the onboard cockpit voice recorder was not activated during the crash flight and that the engines, propellers, and several other components have been retained by the ATSB for further examination.
The investigation is continuing and will include consideration of the following:
- engine, gearbox and propeller component examinations
- aircraft maintenance history
- aircraft performance and handling characteristics
- impact sequence
- analysis of numerous witness reports
- review and analysis of the available recorded data, including witness videos, aircraft tracking data, audio recordings and any onboard systems
- review and analysis of environmental influences
- the crew’s qualifications, experience and medical information
- the nature of aerial fire-fighting operations
- operating policies and procedures
- exploring the possible reasons why the CVR did not record the accident flight
- similar occurrences.
The ATSB will continue to consult with the engine and airframe type certificate holders. Accredited representatives from the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been appointed to participate in the investigation.
Source: ATSB Accident Report