Colorado pilot killed in night fire fighting crash, US
The pilot and sole occupant of a single-engine Air Tractor AT-802F was killed when the aircraft went down during a night time fire fighting mission near Colorado’s Estes Park on Tuesday, 16 November 2021. The aircraft, which was owned by Co Fire Aviation, departed from Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL) in Loveland a little before 18h15 local time on a flight that was meant to mark the first time a fixed-wing aircraft had dropped suppressant on a fire at night in Colorado, US. The pilot was identified on Thursday as Marc Thor Olson.
“The Co Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers serving as a tanker pilot,” CO Fire Aviation said in a statement. “Marc Thor Olson was a highly decorated veteran of both the Army and Air Force with 32 years of service to our country. During Thor’s 42 years of flight, he had amassed more than 8 000 total flight hours with an impressive 1 000 hours of NVG flight including in combat and civilian flight.”
The crash occurred at approximately 18h37 local time and the accident site was located at around 21h49. According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Olson reported just prior to the crash that “it was turbulent over the fire, conditions were not ideal to make a drop, and that he was going to make one more pass and then return to Loveland.” Olson had successfully completed a water drop at the site about an hour earlier.
"The terrain where most of the fire was burning made it too dangerous to insert fire fighters to battle the fire directly," the LCSO explained. "The gusty winds, higher than normal temperatures and low relative humidity suggested great potential for the fire to grow quickly. Incident command knew the best chance of getting ahead of the fire was with the use of air drops from aviation resources."
After reaching out to CO Fire Aviation for help, Police said they had a conversation with them "about the fire and weather behaviour as LCSO wanted to make sure CO Fire Aviation was aware of and comfortable with the conditions."
CO Fire Aviation agreed to offer a plane and pilot and later went on to make aerial water drops in the area. As this was happening, LCSO said their resources on the ground were communicating with Olson.
"The pilot reported the wind was not too bad at the fire and said he would head to Loveland to get a load of suppressant to make a second drop," the LCSO wrote. "About an hour later, the plane returned to the fire and the pilot told ground resources it was turbulent over the fire, conditions were not ideal to make a drop, and that he was going to make one more pass and then return to Loveland."
"Moments later, at approximately 18h37, ground resources heard the plane crash," the LCSO added.
Though the aircarft wreckage was located around 21h50 on Tuesday, Olson's body wasn't recovered until Wednesday morning, the LCSO said.
In a statement on their website, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control confirmed the plane was not a State-owned aircraft but said they've been studying the use of single-engine air tankers in night operations on wildfires.
"It is too early to know the cause of this tragedy and whether it is even related to night operations, but the DFPC, through its partnership with Larimer County, the US Forest Service, the contract aircraft company CO-Fire Aviation, the FAA and the NTSB, hopes to learn all that we can from this tragedy to advance the safe and efficient use of aviation assets to effectively and safely respond to wildland fire during daytime and potential future night operations," they wrote.
An investigation into the crash is currently underway by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. CO Fire Aviation said they are "fully cooperating" with authorities and partners during this time.
The Kruger Rock Fire first started on Tuesday morning in an area of "very steep terrain" in Estes Park, according to a press release from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office. Authorities believe the flames broke out after high winds in the area blew a tree onto a nearby powerline, causing it to arc and catch fire.
Gusting winds and low relative humidity caused the blaze to rage on, quickly spreading beyond the area and causing mandatory evacuations for nearby homes and businesses. Those evacuations were later downgraded as fire officials worked to contain the flames.
As of Thursday, the fire has burned through an estimated 146 acres and is 40 percent contained with 210 personnel currently on-site, according to Larimer County.
Sources: AV Web, People, The Denver Channel