Moments before he crashed Tuesday, a pilot flying in an air tanker over a wildfire burning near Estes Park reported that conditions were turbulent and he planned to return to an airport in Loveland.
First responders on the ground then heard the plane, flying a rare nighttime firefighting mission, slam into the ground, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
A spokesman for a company that owned the plane, CO Fire Aviation, identified the pilot Wednesday as Marc Thor Olson, a former military pilot with extensive experience flying in the dark.
Olson died when his plane went down about 6:30 p.m. in the Hermit Park area near where the Kruger Rock fire was burning just south of Estes Park. The wreckage was discovered about 10 p.m., according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
Olson had more than 8,000 total hours of flying experience, including more than 1,000 hours of flying with night vision goggles, Kyle Scott and Chris Doyle, owners of CO Fire Aviation, said in a joint statement.
“The Co Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers serving as a tanker pilot,” the statement said.
The statement said the company was “fully cooperating” with authorities.
Olson had been a pilot for more than four decades, and previously flew for the Army and Air Force for 32 years.
Olson successfully dropped water over the fire shortly before dark and assessed the conditions, the company spokesman said. After sunset, he loaded up at the Northern Regional Airport in Loveland for another drop and returned to the area as the winds died down.
The mission did not require another aircraft to supervise them and the weather and wind conditions were reported to be within the limits of the company’s standard operating procedures, according to the spokesman.
The sheriff’s office says it reached out to CO Fire Aviation for support midday Tuesday with the hopes of getting getting ahead of the fire. The sheriff’s office discussed the fire and weather behavior with CO Fire Aviation to make sure they were aware of and comfortable with the conditions, the office said in a statement.
After checking the weather and crosswinds near the fire, CO Fire Aviation told the sheriff’s office they were comfortable making air drops, according to the sheriff’s office.
Olson left Fort Morgan with a load of water and dropped it on the flames. He reported the wind was “not too bad” and headed to Loveland to get a load of suppressant for a second drop, according to the sheriff’s office.
About an hour later, Olson returned to the fire and told firefighters on the ground that conditions were not ideal and that he would make one more trip over the fire before returning to Loveland.
Moments later, at about 6:37 p.m., first responders on the ground heard the plane crash, the sheriff’s office said.
The new details about the deadly crash came as Kruger Rock fire showed little growth overnight after forcing evacuations in Estes Park on Tuesday. The blaze was burning on 145 acres Wednesday night and 40% contained.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the fatal crash. It can take more than a year for investigators to release a report on what caused the aircraft to go down.
“At night, it is a totally different story”
Investigators will begin by documenting the wreckage at the site, the environment the aircraft was flying in and looking at the plane’s mechanics to determine whether there’s any evidence of mechanical malfunction that contributed to the crash, Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Then, they will look at the pilot’s qualifications and experience, especially given that they were using night vision goggles.
“What type of experience did that pilot have operating in mountainous areas fighting fires with NVGs? That’s going to be a critical question that needs to be answered,” Feith said.
Investigators will also look at whether the company had policies and procedures for nighttime drop operations, he said. The procedures should include a flight risk assessment to evaluate the dangers with the current weather and terrain.
“Given the weather conditions that were up there last night with strong gusty winds, you’re operating a single-engine airplane, with a single pilot, in mountainous terrain. That is not a good formula,” Feith said. “So the question of course for investigators to try and get answers to is: What’s the no-go decision making by the company to dispatch this flight? But given the fact that the pilot is the ultimate, final authority as to whether or not that flight gets conducted, was there any type of external pressure — or even self induced pressure — for this pilot to try to accomplish the mission which unfortunately did not end up successfully?”
Feith, who has investigated crashes of planes similar to the one Olson was flying, said flying at night is a challenge due to the reduced visibility.
“During the day, it’s real easy because you have unlimited visibility, you can see what’s going on, you can see where you are going to be flying, especially if you are going to be dropping over a fire,” he said. “At night, it is a totally different story because now you are operating in a black hole environment. You don’t have a lot of illumination in mountain terrain. While you do have the glow of the fire, that doesn’t really help the pilot understand the rest of the geography that he is going to be operating in.”
While night vision goggles help enhance the pilot’s ability to see, there will still be limited visibility of mountains, trees and buildings, he said. Bright flashes of lights and the glow of the fire can also blind the pilot while using the goggles.
“But operating in a mountainous environment in a single-engine airplane with extreme wind conditions is a prescription for disaster,” he said.
Officials believe the fire was ignited Tuesday morning after high winds blew a tree onto a nearby powerline, causing it to spark, the sheriff’s office said.
The last firefighting aircraft crash in Colorado happened 20 years ago
The deadly crash appears to be the first involving a firefighting aircraft in Colorado in two decades and the third fatal air disaster related to firefighting in Estes Park.
While battling the 2002 Big Elk fire, two air tanker pilots died when their plane crashed while they hauled slurry to pour on the fire. About a week later, a helicopter pilot was killed fighting the same fire, when his Lama helicopter crashed.
Firefighting aircraft don’t typically fly at night in Colorado because it is dangerous, but there has been a recent push to change that for fixed-wing aircraft using night vision goggles.
In 2019, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control conducted night flying trials, using helicopters, to evaluate if it can be done safely and to train firefighters in night operations, according to a Department of Public Safety report issued in November 2019.
The division has not looked into a contract that would include nighttime planes to fight fires but has two contracts with CO Fire for daytime operations, Melissa Lineberger, chief of staff for the division said. DFPC has not conducted any safety trials with fixed-wing firefighting aircrafts, she said.
The DFPC justified the trials with data that showed the number of people living in at-risk areas jumped by nearly 50% from 2012 to 2017.
“Based on these changing demographics—and the fact that in 2018 more than 450 homes were destroyed or damaged in wildfires across Colorado—DFPC feels there is a need to have the ability to fly fire suppression missions at night,” the department wrote.
At the time, night water-dropping operations were seen as another tool to help fire managers fight wildfires and reduce the impact to communities, the report stated.
No safety issues arose during the trials, but the report listed several best practices for pilots fighting fires at night.
Pilots must keep scanning and always be aware of the terrain around them, the report warned. Proficiency and experience in using night-vision goggles is “an important component in offsetting many of the visual limitations” of the goggles.
The extra effort a pilot must make in scanning the surroundings and navigating through the nighttime vision goggles can lead to an increased amount of fatigue, the report said.
Even with night vision, there are several risks firefighters face while fighting wildfires, including limited depth perception which could cause a loss of situation awareness or spatial disorientation, the report stated.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office says it attended a CO Fire Aviation demonstration earlier this year and was “interested in the services CO Fire Aviation were offering, including night air operations.”
“In recent years, we have experienced the severe fire behavior in Colorado as demonstrated by the 2020 Cameron Peak fire,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement. “Recent advances in technology to achieve night air operations already in use in other states has proven to be an effective tactic to help prevent medium-sized fires from exploding and making large runs like we saw last year.”
The Kruger Rock fire is the first time the sheriff’s office used the services of CO Fire Aviation.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.