The chief executive of a Vancouver Island aviation company is headed to Australia to meet with two of his American pilots who walked away from a serious crash while on a firefighting mission in the bush east of Perth.
The experienced pilots were flying over a blaze near Fitzgerald River National Park on Monday when they were forced to crash-land their aircraft – a Boeing 737 passenger jet modified to drop flame retardant – in a forest, eventually climbing out the cockpit windows and down some trees to get away relatively unscathed.
Aerial footage posted to social media shows the plane engulfed in flames shortly after the crash, and aerial photos taken later indicate the aircraft was almost completely consumed, save for the tips of its wings and its tail.
“It’s hard to fathom,” Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson told The Globe and Mail late Tuesday night from Vancouver International Airport. “It’s probably one of the best aviation stories ever.”
Julie Barron, a sheep farmer in the Peak View region, about a six-hour flight east of Perth, said she and her husband first met the more experienced of the two pilots in 2020, after another Coulson Group firefighting plane crashed near their community, killing all three American crew members. Ms. Barron, whose husband also works with the local rural fire service, told The Globe that the tight-knit firefighting community was on tenterhooks after news of Monday’s crash first broke.
“It was a heart-stopping moment until we knew they were okay,” she said from her home while her husband, James, was busy shearing sheep. “I’m not one to believe in miracles, but I’m certainly rethinking that now.”
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigated the 2020 crash of the Coulson Lockheed C-130 Hercules water tanker and determined that the crew had not been informed about unsafe winds by the local wildfire service before entering the area where they crashed.
On Tuesday, ATSB chief commissioner Angus Mitchell issued a statement saying it was too early to tell what caused Monday’s crash, but there was nothing to suggest any similarities to the 2020 disaster.
“This is the first serious accident involving a Boeing 737 aircraft in Australia, and the second involving a large air tanker firebombing aircraft,” he said.
A large team of agency investigators will now try to piece together what went wrong. They will start by interviewing the pilots and witnesses and recovering the plane’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, Mr. Mitchell said. Such investigations typically take six months to two years to complete. However, if the agency discovers a critical safety issue, it will alert the company and relevant government agencies immediately.
Mr. Coulson said it was “extremely distressing” to have a second aircraft go down in Australia, adding that his company will share more details about the crash once ATSB investigators interview the pilots and visit the scene.
“We’ve just got a microscope on everything right now,” he said.
Coulson Group has more than 500 employees around the world, mostly assisting authorities in Chile, Argentina and California, Mr. Coulson said. In Australia, 60 staff are stationed year round in New South Wales, where they are under contract with the state government to fight fires with jets and helicopters. Another 60 people are currently flying throughout Australia fighting bush fires, he added.
The company will replace the destroyed plane with one currently being retrofitted, Mr. Coulson said, but that will take four to five months.
The two pilots, whom he would not identify, are awaiting their interviews with the authorities before flying back home to the United States for a much-needed break, he said.