Windy weather possible factor in firefighting plane crash

Problem Solvers

ESTES PARK, Colo. (KDVR) — The federal investigation into Tuesday’s fatal crash of a firefighting plane near Estes Park will likely focus on weather and the dangerous flying conditions that existed.

The plane crashed responding at night to the Kruger Rock Fire, which sparked earlier in the day amid high winds and low humidity.

“We had cold fronts moving, we had pressure dropping, we had winds coming from all these different directions up to 74 miles an hour,” said Channel 2 Morning Meteorologist Chris Tomer.

Tomer said a larger plane like a Boeing 747 could probably ride out the wind shear and turbulence, but not a single-engine aircraft forced to change elevations and direction constantly.

“He was flying in circles to try and locate this fire, so he was subject to all of the wind at different directions,” Tomer said.

Who authorized the flight?

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control did not authorize the flight. Instead, the plane flew at the request of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, which did not need state permission because it wasn’t using a state-authorized aircraft.

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith told FOX31 reporter Vicente Arenas that the decision to fly was ultimately up to the owner of the plane, CO Fire Aviation, a private aviation company based in Fort Morgan.

Around midday, the Sheriff’s Office reached out to CO Fire Aviation for help with air operations, as the terrain was too dangerous for firefighters and conditions “suggested great potential for the fire to grow quickly,” according to a statement from Larimer County.

“They also discussed the fire and weather behavior as LCSO wanted to make sure CO Fire Aviation was aware of and comfortable with the conditions,” the statement reads.

CO Fire Aviation agreed. After one successful drop, the pilot returned for a second drop about an hour later.

According to Larimer County, “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 6:37 p.m., ground resources heard the plane crash.”

In a statement to the Problem Solvers, CO Fire Aviation said:

The pilot conducted a successful drop just prior to dark in the daylight and assessed the conditions to be safe. He then waited until after sunset and loaded up at Northern Colorado Regional Airport and proceeded to the area for a second time with winds having died down more. There was no aerial supervision or lead plane required for the mission and weather and wind conditions were reported to be within limits of our company standard operating procedures. The cause is being investigated and nothing has been ruled out at this stage.

‘The biggest danger … it’s the winds’

Less than an hour before the fatal plane crash, FOX31 reporter Shaul Turner interviewed pilot Marc Olson on the runaway along with fellow pilot Zachary Sullivan. Sullivan is a spokesperson for CO Fire Aviation.

“The biggest danger I would say, no more than during the daytime, it’s the winds,” Sullivan said. “It’s the unknown terrain, and it’s things like that, but honestly, our pilots feel it’s much safer to do this at night because the winds are calmer. Through the goggles, you can see almost a lot better than sometimes you can at night and the weather is much more forgiving at night, so we almost feel that it’s safer.”

While it is true that winds are often calmer at night, Tomer said that definitely wasn’t the case near Estes Park Tuesday night.

“If this was a bigger plane, I don’t think this would have been a problem,” Tomer said. “The small plane with all that weather, I think was just a bad recipe.”

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