The Australian Transportation Safety Bureau has sent a team to the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales to investigate the site where Lockheed C-130 aerial fire tanker crashed.
The heavy tanker, owned by Coulson Aviation of Port Alberni, was loaded with fire retardant and headed to Peak View, near Cooma, NSW to help fight one of several “emergency warning” fires that cropped up in the area. The NSW Rural Fire Service lost contact with the aircraft. Shortly afterward, a fireball could be seen in the vicinity of the aircraft.
Captain Ian H. McBeth of Great Falls, Montana, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona and flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr. of Navarre, Florida were all killed in the crash.
“The ATSB is deploying a team of transport safety investigators with experience in aircraft operations, maintenance and data recovery to the accident site, to begin the evidence collection phase of the investigation,” the ATSB noted in a statement.
ATSB investigators will be analyzing any recorded data, review weather information and interview any witnesses. A preliminary report is not expected to be released before 30 days, a spokesperson noted. Should a critical safety issue be identified, the ATSB will notify relevant stakeholders.
Coulson Aviation has sent an accident response team to New South Wales to assist in emergency operations. The company has also grounded its fleet of tankers until an investigation can be done.
Doug Donaldson, B.C. Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, passed on the provincial government’s condolences following the crash.
“Our thoughts are with the family and friends of everyone involved in this incident. On behalf of all British Columbians, I extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the flight crew and to the staff of Coulson Aviation,” Donaldson said.
“The international firefighting community has rallied this year to help Australia during its catastrophic fire season. So far, 45 BC Wildfire Service staff have been deployed to Australia as part of the contingent of 172 Canadian firefighting personnel. We will continue to respond to requests for assistance from our Australian friends during their extremely challenging fire season.”
Port Alberni mayor Sharie Minions expressed the city’s condolences in a public statement. “It is with heavy hearts that we learn of the recent aerial water tanker crash in Australia that claimed the lives of three courageous American crew members on board,” she said. “The international firefighting community is a close knit one and the aerial firefighting sector even more so. Any loss of life is felt deeply among these men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting our communities.
“The loss is also felt deeply by our local community, having a strong connection and sense of pride in the Coulson family and the work they conduct here. Our thoughts go out to the families and friends of those affected by this tragic loss. The C-130 Hercules crew were heroes putting ther lives on the line to save others, and their commitment to the job will never be forgotten.”
Coulson Aviation has had aircraft in Australia for a number of years, beginning with their Sikorsky S-61 helicopters. The state of New South Wales and the NSW Rural Fire Service have worked with Coulson for four or five years, according to NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
Last year the NSW RFS purchased a converted 737 air tanker from the Port Alberni-based aviation company. Coulson is contracted to operate and maintain that 737 for the Rural Fire Service, and also has a second 737 and second C-130 operating in the state of Victoria, he said.
Coulson purchased five C-130H transport planes in November 2019 from the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency (NDMA) with the intent of modifying the aircraft into firefighting tankers. The transfer was supposed to be finalized in late 2019/ early 2020. The deal has been in the works since 2018, according to Britt Coulson, president of Coulson Aviation.
Just this week Coulson unveiled a pair of CH47 Chinook helicopters it has been retrofitting in its hangar at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport. The former military choppers have been outfitted with the Coulson RADS-L, what the company bills as the world’s largest capacity internal helicopter firefighting system.