FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The pilot who died Tuesday night when his specially equipped firefighting single-engine plane crashed while working the Kruger Rock Fire told his ground crew the air was turbulent and he was going to make one more pass before returning to the airport, authorities said.
Veteran pilot Marc Thor Olson never returned as that same ground crew, moments after his last communication, heard Olson’s plane crash on that final pass southeast of Estes Park.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, which had requested the pilot’s help in fighting the fire, released those details and more Wednesday afternoon.
“About an hour later, 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,” the Sheriff’s office said, according to the Denver Post.
The sheriff’s office contacted Fort Morgan-based CO Fire Aviation to see if they would send a plane to battle the blaze because strong wind prevented aerial support and steep terrain prevented firefighters from working on the ground.
The company said they had a pilot and plane available. The flight was believed to be the first time a pilot in Colorado used a fixed-wing aircraft to fight a fire.
The sheriff’s office and CO Fire Aviation discussed the fire and weather behavior, which included strong and gusty winds, according to the release. A few hours later, the company said they were checking the weather and crosswinds at the fire and were comfortable making air drops.
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According to FlightAware, the Air Tractor AT-802 left the Fort Morgan Municipal Airport at 3:30 p.m. The sheriff’s office said it was loaded with water and heading to the fire.
Olson successfully dropped a load of water on the fire and the pilot reported the wind was “not too bad at the fire“ and said he would head to Loveland to get a load of suppressant to make a second drop. He arrived at the Loveland airport at 4:38 p.m., according to FlightAware.
He left for a second trip to the fire at 6:10 p.m. Once back at the fire, Olson 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 before returning.
At about 6:37 p.m., ground resources heard the plane crash. Immediately, a search began for the wreckage, which was located about a mile from the fire.
Olson’s body was recovered from the wreckage Wednesday morning and the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash scene to begin their investigation, the sheriff’s office said.
CO Fire Aviation said in a Facebook post that the company is fully cooperating with the proper authorities and partners during the investigation and that it is “gravely aware of the inherent dangers of aerial fire fighting and the questions that remain.”
The sheriff’s office began talks with CO Fire Aviation about its services in May after a demonstration at the Loveland airport showed the ability of its planes and pilots to fight fires at night using skilled pilots with night vision goggles.
The sheriff’s office entered into a verbal “call when needed” contract with the company on Oct. 5. A written contract is still being negotiated, according to the release. The company signed a five-year contract with the state of Colorado for its services.
The Kruger Rock Fire is the first time the sheriff’s office has used the services of CO Fire Aviation.
The sheriff’s office had reached out to the company about its services during other fires this year but the company either did not have the availability or air operations were not needed on those fires.
The sheriff’s office said it sought the company’s services, including night air operations after last year’s nearly 209,000-acre Cameron Peak Fire became the largest in state history and during which several large fire runs consumed structures.
It said 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.