NTSB Press Release

National Transportation Safety Board
Office of Public Affairs


UPDATE ON NTSB INVESTIGATION INTO CRASH OF FIREFIGHTING PLANE IN UTAH

June 22, 2004

On June 17, 2004, at 5:47 p.m., a PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromader airplane, N8214J, impacted terrain while maneuvering during firefighting operations and was destroyed near St. George, Utah. During the accident flight, the single engine airplane was under the operational control of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Department of Interior (DOI). The airplane was being operated with a restricted category Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airworthiness certificate. The purpose of the public-use flight was to release a fire retardant over a wildland fire.

The airplane experienced a post-crash fire, and the commercial pilot, a non-government employee, was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a Bureau-approved flight plan had been filed for the local area flight that originated from St. George about 5:30 p.m.

Ground and airborne eyewitnesses reported that the airplane had just completed a fire retardant drop while flying less than 100 feet above downsloping terrain. Immediately following the drop, the airplane pitched down and descended steeply into wooded terrain. The pilot did not report any problems prior to the accident.

According to BLM representatives, the pilot had about 21,000 hours of experience, mostly in crop dusting. He had about 35 hours in the Dromader M-18, of which about 25 hours were flown during simulated and operational firefighting operations during last year's fire season. The pilot also received three hours of additional training by BLM recently in Safford, Arizona. The accident flight was the pilot's third or fourth fire retardant drop of the day. He had completed two drops on the day before the accident. The accident pilot was a relief pilot; the primary pilot, who had flown the accident airplane for three years, did not report any problems with the airplane prior to the accident.

According to witnesses, the accident pilot performed two dry runs over the intended area of drop before releasing the retardant on the third pass. During the accident drop run, the pilot released the retardant earlier than desired, and was off course.

Safety Board interviews with Dromader pilots engaged in air tanker operations indicate that some of the pilots were flying the drop run at an airspeed that was slower than the recommended airspeed for a fire retardant drop. As a result of this discrepancy, the National Program Manager for the U.S. single- engine air tanker fleet temporarily halted operation of all 26 contracted Dromader M-18 airplanes for 2 days so that pilots could refamiliarize themselves with the operational specifications of the airplane. This "safety stand down" was lifted on Monday morning, June 21, and the Dromader pilots are now continuing firefighting operations. Eight of the 26 Dromaders are turbine powered, and the rest are powered by radial engines (the accident airplane was powered by a radial engine). The Dromaders make up about one-third of the federal single-engine air tanker fleet of 79 airplanes.

A team of NTSB, FAA, DOI, and BLM investigators examined the accident site and wreckage one day after the accident. Physical evidence at the site indicates that it impacted the ground in a near vertical, nose-down attitude. No evidence of an inflight structural failure, flight control discrepancy, or obvious catastrophic engine failure was noted at the site. The wreckage has been recovered and will be examined in detail in Phoenix, Arizona, by a team of Safety Board investigators later this week. The airplane maintenance records were on board the airplane at the time of the accident and were destroyed in the post-crash fire. Howard Plagens is the Investigator-in-Charge of this accident, and the NTSB accident number is LAX04GA243.

This accident is the third fatal accident involving a Dromader M-18 air tanker in the past 3 months. All three airplanes were owned by the Montana-based company New Frontier Aviation. The first accident occurred on March 16, 2004, near Safford, Arizona. The purpose of the public-use flight was to practice a simulated fire retardant drop. The airplane (N6259N) was destroyed, and the commercial pilot, a non-government employee, was fatally injured. Witnesses reported that the airplane was loaded with 400 gallons of water in preparation for the aerial drop. While turning left to the base leg, the airplane's engine was heard to "surge" two to three times. Witnesses stated that the airplane assumed an "unusual attitude" with "the right wing up and the nose down" until they lost sight of the airplane behind a small ridgeline. The Investigator-in-Charge is Wayne Pollack, and the NTSB accident number is LAX04TA161.

The second accident occurred on May 22, 2004. The airplane, N117BS, was destroyed when it collided with mountainous terrain near Borah Peak, Idaho, in adverse weather conditions. The airplane was being operated as a visual flight rules (VFR) cross- country flight under the provisions of 14 CFR 91, when the accident occurred. At the time of the accident, the airplane was not being operated by the BLM, but was being positioned to a location where it would begin service for the BLM. The airline transport pilot- in-command was fatally injured in the accident. No flight plan was filed for the flight that originated from Dillon, Montana, approximately one hour and 15 minutes prior to the accident. The pilot's planned destination was Boise, Idaho. Dennis Hogenson is the Investigator-in-Charge of this accident, and the NTSB accident number is SEA04LA095.

NTSB Office of Public Affairs: (202) 314-6100

 

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause
of transportation accidents, promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families.