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New details on Island plane company's crash during Australian firefighting

Initial report describes plane striking ridgeline and pilots escaping through window

By Cameron Welch
May 15, 2023
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

New details on Island plane company's crash during Australian firefighting

Initial report describes plane striking ridgeline and pilots escaping through window

By Cameron Welch
May 15, 2023
Image from Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)
Image from Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

New details on Island plane company's crash during Australian firefighting

Initial report describes plane striking ridgeline and pilots escaping through window

By Cameron Welch
May 15, 2023
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New details on Island plane company's crash during Australian firefighting
Image from Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB)

Three months ago a large Boeing 737 Fireliner, part of Port-Alberni-based Coulson Aviation’s Australian firefighting fleet, went down in the Fitzgerald River National Park in Western Australia while fighting bushfires. Both pilots were able to escape the burning plane with only minor injuries.

Bomber 139 had hit a ridgeline, cleared some foliage, and then struck ground a second time and slid [see figure below], according to this month’s initial fact-finding update from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). This initial report on incident details (but not culpability or analysis) analyzed flight data and cockpit audio recordings from recovered recorders, along with interviews and a drone-mapped 3D rendering of the site.

Image from ATSB

On Feb. 6 a bird-dog (fixed-wing aircraft that scouts a fire and coordinates tankers to suppress it) briefed Bomber 139 and directed it to extend a line of fire retardant. The bomber dropped three quarters of its retardant, stopping when it reached an already burned section below. It was when the plane repositioned, at about 25m above ground, to drop that remaining quarter that it struck the ridgeline. The pilots tried to make a move just before that initial crash, based on the ATSB's recovered flight data. 

Diagram from ATSB

The ATSB will continue investigating, releasing full findings at the end unless it catches an immediately-relevant critical safety issue. Coulson says it has made interim changes including changing the minimum speed and altitude for drops and requiring adequate training from bird-dog crews in operations with large tankers.  

Pilots escaped burning plane through window

Port-Alberni-based CEO Wayne Coulson said in a statement in Feb. that both pilots “walked away from the accident.” He elaborated to CHEK before taking a flight from the Island to Australia and said the pilots walked a kilometre after getting out of the plane. The ATSB update said that the cabin door and right window were stuck shut, but that the pilot and copilot were able to escape through the left-side window before the fallen plane burned through. They were later picked up by a helicopter.

Plane, unfortunately nicknamed “Phoenix,” received major contract shortly before fiery crash

Just three weeks before the crash, Coulson Aviation announced Australia’s National Large Air Tanker (LAT) contract for Bomber 139, nicknamed “Phoenix” by schoolchildren through a contest. The Sydney-based plane was to fly to different parts of the country, dropping up to 15,000L of water or fire retardant as part of ongoing brushfire season efforts. 

Coulson Aviation had also posted on social media the week before the crash to celebrate its 737s, saying Coulson “is the only company in the world to convert a Boeing 737 commercial airliner into a multi-mission FireLiner™ aircraft” and that each one “receives over 40,000 technician hours to become fully compliant and operational.” 

Tanker 139, weeks before its crash. Photo: Coulson Aviation

Three years since previous Australian Coulson crash killed trio onboard

In Jan. 2020, a Coulson C-130 Hercules crashed while fighting a fire in New South Wales, killing three US firefighters. The crash drew additional attention due to the controversy over a video of it that circulated on TikTok. 

The ATSB investigation partly faulted Coulson Aviation, determining that its risk assessment procedures and risk register were lacking. In its Aug. 2022 report, however, the ATSB did find that the company had since improved its procedures and training. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service was also faulted for sending the pilots into poor weather and not telling them other planes had backed out.

Coulson planes not used in BC due to size

The Coulson Group is one of the Island’s prominent family businesses, but Coulson planes are not used in BC. The BC Wildfire Service prefers to use more maneuverable small planes and helicopters to make multiple flexible runs and access many more water bodies. Wayne Coulson disputes this approach, arguing to the Times Colonist that his larger-capacity 737s—and a grounded Martin Mars at Sprout Lake—would still be viable, particularly around Okanagan Lake

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Cameron Welch
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