Winds focus of probe into death of US firefighters in NSW

written by Adam Thorn | September 24, 2020

The ATSB is now investigating whether strong winds played a part in the death of three American firefighters whose Lockheed C-130 crashed while they were tackling a bushfire in southern NSW.

The news comes after an interim report, released on Thursday, spoke to multiple witnesses who all reported “very strong winds” on the day of the accident in January this year.

Australian Aviation reported earlier this year that the ATSB weren’t able to recover any audio from that accident that killed Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan despite investors recovering the voice recorder.

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The incident was one of the most high-profile tragedies of Australia’s black summer bushfire season.

“To-date, the ATSB has interviewed other pilots and key personnel from the aircraft operator, NSW Rural Fire Service personnel involved in aviation operations, witnesses, C-130 and other aerial firefighting pilots, and key personnel in overseas aerial firefighting operations,” said ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood.

“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.”

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The next stage of the investigation will focus on weather and environmental influences, aircraft performance and handling and operating policies and procedures in an attempt to discover the cause of the accident, which still remains a mystery.

So far, the ATSB’s examination of the crash site and wreckage has significantly found no evidence of structural failure or pre-existing damage.

However, investigators have received “multiple witness reports” of the weather conditions at Peak View.

“Witnesses all consistently reported very strong winds from the north-west,” Hood said. “One resident noted that, although the prevailing wind was from the north-west, the direction and strength at ground level were also being influenced by the local terrain.”

“The Bureau of Meteorology considered the conditions on the day were favourable for mountain wave development, and satellite imagery of cloud formations confirmed their presence in the general area of the accident.

“However, from the data available they were unable to determine the severity of mountain wave activity.”

In February, Australian Aviation first reported the details of the traffic flight that occurred as the three men were trying to tackle the Good Good fire.

The Lockheed C-130 flown by the three men was built in 1981 and repurposed for firefighting activities.

It had arrived in Australia in November 2019 but had previously operated in the country during the 2018-19 bushfire season.

The aircraft took off at 12:05pm on 23 January from Richmond RAAF base and approached the Adaminaby Complex bushfire.

However, it was unable to complete its drop and so was diverted to a secondary task to drop retardant on the Good Good fire.

The ATSB reported witnesses seeing the aircraft complete a number of circuits before the crew released 4,500 litres of fire retardant on the blaze, 200 feet above ground level.

Videos taken of the aircraft leading up the accident showed a number of passes were conducted at varying heights prior to the drop.

The C-130 was then observed to bank left before becoming obscured by smoke after about five seconds.

Around 15 seconds later, the aircraft was seen flying at a very low height above the ground in a “left-wing down attitude”.

Shortly after, at 1:16pm, the plane hit the ground and a “post-impact fuel-led fire” ensued. All three crew were killed.

A review of the Airservices Australia audio recording of the air traffic control frequency found no distress calls were made by the crew prior to the impact.

Crucially, no audio was recorded from the in-flight cockpit voice recorder, despite the device being recovered intact. All recovered audio was from a previous flight when the aircraft was operating in the US.

Cockpit voice recorders are usually designed on an “endless loop principle”, meaning the oldest audio is continuously overwritten by the most recent recording. The model on the C-130 had a recording duration of 30 minutes.

The final report into the incident is not expected for many months.

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3 Comments

  • Nicholas Paul

    says:

    I thought of this tragedy last week when someone, TWU?? was whining about bringing in pilots from the US to fly water bombers.

    This awful tragedy shows that its a very dangerous job even with the experience that this crew had.

  • Gordon

    says:

    From the video I saw at the time, they were flying through thick smoke, plane looked disoriented, was banking lopsided & heading to the ground rapidly.
    Why were they flying through thick smoke, so low? Did wind shift the smoke to envelop them?
    Maybe this’ll be answered in the enquiry.

  • Andrew

    says:

    Gordon, the aviators in this case were participating in a fairly desperate activity known as aerial firefighting. It is a dangerous activity because to have any effect it seems necessary to fly very close to the ground in order to release the fire retardant and have it reach the fire before it evaporates.

    Otherwise, the material could be delivered as belly cargo from FL40, and there would be zero risk of collision with terrain, or finding visibility suddenly obscured by smoke, etc, Gordon.

    We don’t need an enquiry to know that using an aircraft to fight a fire is a number of degrees more difficult and dangerous than routine air transport operations, I am sure you agree. And the inquisitors will either discover and report what it was that went so horribly wrong, or they won’t.

    Either way, I hope I am correct in assuming that many many more Australians will be queing to express our eternal gratitude for their skills, courage, and commitment in coming from their homeland to lend assistance to protect ours, as well as our unreserved condolences at the loss of their lives, than to deliver inane and ultimately inconsequential hypotheses.

    From the video I saw, Australia was on fire, these guys came to help us, bringing capacity, skills and expertise we don’t bother to cultivate for ourselves, and were tragically killed in action as many of their countrymen have before them.

    Australia owes them and their families an enormous debt of gratitude. I hope we can agree we know for that for certain.

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