USA — The pilot of a single-engine air tanker that crashed while fighting a Fort Carson wildfire April 15 told officials several times before the accident that winds were too strong in the area of the fire for him to drop fire suppressant, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
Despite pilot Gert Marais’ misgivings, officials repeatedly asked him to assist in fighting the blaze, and after dropping a load of water and foam, Marais’ Air Tractor AT-602 nose-dived into the ground, killing the 42-year-old pilot, the NTSB report said.
The plane was contracted to the U.S. Department of Defense and Fort Carson by a local agreement that the Colorado State Forest Service had with the plane’s operator, Aero Applicators Inc. of Sterling, the NTSB said. The agency added that the accident flight was the first firefighting mission Marais flew for Aero Applicators.
The fire, which burned about 9,000 acres, was one of two active wildfires in southern Colorado in mid-April. The other was the 9,000-acre Ordway blaze in Crowley County. The day Marais died, two volunteer firefighters working the Ordway fire were killed when their truck crashed where a fire-damaged bridge had collapsed.
According to the pilot of a second Aero Applicators tanker, the company got a call from dispatchers April 15 “inquiring whether they could assist in firefighting efforts” at the Fort Carson wildfire.
Marais, the lead air-tanker pilot for the company, said “he was going to check the weather because they were aware of high winds in the Fort Carson area,” according to the NTSB’s interview with the second pilot.
“The accident pilot stated that ‘anything over 20 knots, they were not going,’ ” the accident report said. “After checking the weather via the Internet, he decided that support to Fort Carson was not an option due to high winds.”
Twenty knots is about 23 mph.
At the time of the accident, winds at Fort Carson’s airfield, about 5 miles from the accident site, were about 30 mph, gusting to nearly 38 mph, the report said. Earlier on the day of the accident, Fort Carson helicopters that were assisting in fire suppression “were removed from the location due to high wind activity,” the report said.
When Marais told the dispatch center that “they could not go to Fort Carson,” dispatchers asked him and the second pilot “if they could go assist in firefighting efforts at a wildfire that was near Ordway,” the NTSB report said. Marais “decided that they would give that location a try because it was in the plains/flat area, and the winds were probably not as high.”
Yet as they approached Ordway, dispatch “told them to change their plans” and go to the Fort Carson fire instead.
The two pilots decided that since they were already halfway to Fort Carson or Ordway, “they would at least check out the flight conditions” at the Fort Carson wildfire “before they canceled the mission,” according to the NTSB.
When they arrived at the fire on the military reservation, the incident commander (IC) “asked the accident pilot to plan a drop at the head of the fire. The accident pilot performed a dry run over the area and then told the IC that the winds and turbulence were too strong to do a drop,” the report said. “The IC then requested a different drop location,” and “prior to the drop, the IC informed the accident pilot about gusty winds and power line hazards.”
The accident pilot made the drop “where the IC told him to drop,” the NTSB report continued. “After checking his position, the second pilot looked down at the accident pilot’s airplane and observed the accident airplane in a ‘180-degree vertical going down . . . the airplane impacted the terrain at a 45-degree nose-down angle.’ ”
“The second pilot estimated the winds at the time of the accident to be at least 30 knots (about 34.5 mph) and gusting,” the NTSB said. “He stated it was difficult to hold altitude and airspeed while maneuvering during the accident airplane’s drop, and he ‘rolled’ in flaps at various times because his airspeed was getting slow once in awhile.”
Officials with the interagency firefighting dispatch center in Fort Collins, which was the center communicating with the aircraft in April, could not be reached for comment on the NTSB report.
Those familiar with aerial firefighting say pilots always have the ability to abort a mission if they feel it is too dangerous.
The NTSB report also said that the United States Forest Service’s “air-to-ground contact was not aware that the (planes) were carrying water and Class A foam, and he assumed the airplanes were carrying retardant. Had the contact known that the airplanes were carrying water and foam, he would not have requested that particular drop zone. The drop zone was intended for a retardant application; water and foam were not the correct application for that area.”