On Tuesday afternoon, a water-scooping airplane working a fire in northeastern Washington state crashed. The pilot walked away with minor injuries.
It’s an Air Tractor 802, also known as a Fire Boss -- it looks like a crop duster on floats. It scooped 800 gallons of water from the Columbia River and was on its way to the Horns Mountain Fire when it went down.
Ravi Saip is the General Manager of Airspray USA, the company that owns and operates the plane out of Chico, California.
“It sounds as if our pilot experienced a catastrophic engine failure,” he said. “[The pilot] immediately pulled safely from the flight, declared a mayday and miraculously, he was able to walk away from the airplane even though it’s pretty well damaged,” Saip said.
The aircraft was contracted to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, but it was assisting on a fire that is currently being managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Washington State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz took to Twitter to comment on the accident.
“Our fire staff are working with our partners to gather more information, but I want people to know the pilot is ok and is receiving medical attention for any possible injuries,” Franz tweeted.
The plane crashed on a logging road in what Saip called ‘the middle of nowhere.’ He said the pilot may have suffered broken ribs and is recovering at an area hospital.
All of Airspray’s aircraft are monitored by GPS.
“That is on some of our monitors all day long and we did notice around two o’clock that that particular airplane’s GPS feed went to a different color, which means it’s not pinging out and it was a bit odd,” he said.
“After about 15 minutes, you start to kind of get that heartsick feeling that this really could be something, and it turns to terror when you get a phone call and somebody does say ‘your airplane did go down,’” Saip said. “But the next words were, but the pilot’s OK, he was out of the plane waving his arms, and that’s just indescribable,” Saip said, choking back tears.
Saip declined to identify the pilot, but did say he had an extensive resume. Saip added that this kind of accident is rare. He said the aircraft itself had only 500 hours of flight time on the engine – a small number by aviation standards.
“The investigation into the engine failure – if it is in fact an engine failure – will be very curious indeed,” he said.
The Horns Mountain Fre is among a group of smaller blazes burning near the Canadian border. Three helicopters, including a National Guard Blackhawk and four other airplanes are fighting them.