Two pilots have walked away with minor injuries after a large air tanker crashed while battling two bushfires in regional Western Australia on Monday afternoon.
- The Boeing 737 took off from Busselton to tackle a fire on WA’s south coast
- It crashed over an hour later, with investigations underway into the cause
- An expert says it is “simply amazing” both pilots walked away from the crash
Authorities said the pilots managed to free themselves from the Boeing 737 Fireliner after it came down in the Fitzgerald River National Park, about 460 kilometres south-east of Perth, about 4:40pm.
In a statement, WA Police said the water bomber took off from the Busselton-Margaret River airport about 3:25pm to respond to a fire in the area.
“The two pilots onboard were retrieved from the crash site by helicopter and airlifted to Ravensthorpe Health Service,” the statement said.
A St John Ambulance WA spokesperson said the two people were not believed to be seriously injured.
The area, west of Hopetoun, was under a Bushfire Watch and Act warning on Monday.
The Conmonwealth-funded air tanker, which is owned and operated by Coulson Aviation, arrived in WA in December to fly under the directives of the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
In a statement, Coulson said both pilots had “walked away from the accident” before being medically assessed.
“Our thoughts and our immediate concern is for those team members and their families,” Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson said.
“We are very grateful the two team members on Tanker 139 are safe.
“We are offering all the support we can to our local and international crews.
“We’re also grateful for the support being provided by our firefighting and aviation industry colleagues in Western Australia.”
Aviation consultant and former pilot Keith Tonkin, the managing director of Aviation Projects, described the accident as “very rare”.
Mr Tonkin said it was not the first Coulson aircraft to crash during a bushfire.
“The operator of these aircraft, Coulson Aviation, did have a Hercules have an accident during firefighting a couple of years ago in New South Wales,” he said.
“But the 737 [for firefighting] in Australia is not commonly used. It’s only been in the country a couple of years now and has successfully operated without any incidents, so this is very unusual.”
An investigation into the 2020 NSW crash — which claimed the lives of three US crew aboard the Coulson Aviation C-130 — found wind conditions were too dangerous for aircraft to be operating, but the NSW Rural Fire Service had failed to pass on that information to the crew.
However, it was also critical of Coulson Aviation, finding it had inadequate safety risk management processes and “did not include a windshear recovery procedure in their C-130 Airplane Flight Manual”.
Mr Tonkin said it was remarkable the pilots involved in yesterday’s incident were safe.
“The fact that two pilots walked away from the accident is simply amazing, considering all of those circumstances,” he said.
Two investigations underway
DFES and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) are both conducting separate investigations into the crash.
In a statement, the ATSB said it was assembling a team from its Perth and Canberra offices with experience in aircraft operations and maintenance, human factors and data recovery to conduct the “evidence-collection phase” of the investigation.
“Initially, investigators will seek to interview the pilots and witnesses to understand the circumstances of the accident, and determine the accessibility of the accident site with the aim of conducting an on-site examination of the aircraft wreckage,” the statement said.
“The scope of the investigation and its time frame will be determined as the ATSB builds its understanding of the nature of the accident.”
Shire of Ravensthorpe president Keith Dunlop said he was unsure about the details behind the crash.
“I hope the pilots aren’t too badly injured, and I certainly wish them a most speedy recovery,” he said.
“Let’s just hope they are all OK and best of luck to their family.”