DENVER (KDVR) — A fatal air tanker crash near Estes Park is raising questions about the safety of aerial firefighting missions carried out at night.
The single-engine aircraft owned by CO Fire Aviation took off from Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland just before 6:15 p.m. It circled the area of Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park a few times.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office started investigating reports of a crash a short time later. The pilot, Marc “Thor” Olson, did not survive.
Ben Miller is the director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. He said they have been investigating nighttime aviation since about 2016.
“We have partner organizations in southern California that have been successful in night aviation, specifically with helicopters. I think, generally speaking, it’s something that no one has done to the point that it’s old bag,” Miller said.
The state fire agency was not involved in the decision to run a nighttime operation over Estes Park Tuesday. Miller said they did conduct a night operation with a helicopter over the Virginia Dale Fire earlier this year.
Miller said they have not tested fixed-wing aviation at night, but that would be the next step.
“It’s the right thing that any responsible wildland firefighting organization should be looking at, and I think if we had more staff, more resources we would be looking at it as well,” Miller said.
Nighttime fire attacks are used elsewhere
While nighttime aerial firefighting operations are still relatively new to Colorado, there are companies with years of experience.
Wayne Coulson is the CEO of Coulson Aviation. The aerial firefighting company operates primarily in the United States but also in Australia and Chile. Coulson said they started testing night operations in 2010.
“We went through about 15 different trials before we got the opportunity to work in Victoria, Australia, and that’s where we started fighting fire at night with helicopters,” Coulson said.
They now have contracts with several California counties. Coulson said they have strict safety measures in place to mitigate the risk of flying at night.
“We have a spotter aircraft that goes out with the firebombing aircraft. The spotter is there to protect the firebombing aircraft, and his job is to ensure that where you’re going to drop the load is safe. It can see the aircraft coming in and you can see that aircraft coming out,” Coulson said.
Coulson said pilots are never solo and they do not fly fixed-wing aircraft at night. He said doing so leaves very little room for error.
“It’s so unforgiving. In a helicopter, if you go out and you have the wind and the smoke coming at the aircraft, you can basically stop and turn it around. A fixed-wing you don’t have that same opportunity,” Coulson said.
He expects the fatal crash in Colorado will raise questions throughout the industry and cause other operators to take a step back.