DENVER – The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused a deadly single-engine air tanker crash at the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park Tuesday night as the company the pilot worked for identified him as a 32-year veteran of the Air Force and Army.
CO Fire Aviation identified the pilot killed in the crash as Marc Thor Olson and said he had been an FAA-certified pilot since 1979 who has more than 8,000 flight hours and 1,000 hours of flying with night vision goggles both as a civilian and in combat.
“The Co Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers serving as a tanker pilot,” the company said, adding that it was fully cooperating with the investigation into the crash.
“While we are gravely aware of the inherent dangers of aerial fire fighting and the questions that remain; we ask that family and friends be given distance and time to process and heal as we grieve this loss. Your prayers are appreciated during this difficult time,” the company said in an emailed statement.
A biography on the company’s website said Olson was “looking forward to his second season with CO Fire Aviation as a Level 1 pilot” after “a safe and productive first season” with the company.
Olson had also trained Emirati pilots and had flown multiple types of aircraft during his time in the military and as a civilian, according to the biography.
According to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, the crash was reported around 6:37 p.m. The crash site was located near the south side of Hermit Park – about five miles from Estes Park. Olson was the only occupant aboard the plane.
The plane was an Air Tractor AT-802A belonging to CO Fire Aviation, which is based in Fort Morgan, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. According to FlightAware, the plane left Northern Colorado Regional Airport around 6:15 p.m.
Winds at the time were gusting 40 to 50 miles per hour in the area of the crash. The Colorado Department of Forestry said the single-engine air tanker was not flying under the state’s contract on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said the sheriff’s office was still working to get answers when asked about who ordered the flight, who made the decision to perform the flight and whether it was the first time a single-engine air tanker had flown at night in Colorado, as the state’s contract does not allow for nighttime flights for SEATs. Oregon has tested flying SEATs at night.
The sheriff’s office said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that it reached out to CO Fire Aviation around noon Tuesday and asked if they would be able to assist in air operations because the terrain was too difficult for firefighters on the ground to access.
The sheriff’s office said they were indeed available and interested, and within hours, the company said they were comfortable performing air drops, the sheriff’s office said.
The plane left Fort Morgan and performed a successful water drop, then headed to the Loveland airport to load up with suppressant to make a second drop.
The sheriff’s office said the plane returned an hour later and told fire crews on the ground he was experiencing turbulence and that conditions were not ideal for a drop, the sheriff’s office said. The pilot said he would make one more pass on the fire before returning to Loveland.
“Moments later, at approximately 6:37 p.m., ground resources heard the plane crash,” the sheriff’s office wrote in its news release.
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control confirmed Wednesday afternoon the airplane was contracted by Larimer County and that it was not flying under a state contract, adding that it did not know whether the crash was related to night operations.
“It is too early to know the cause of this tragedy and whether it is even related to night operations, but the DFPC, through its partnership with Larimer County, the US Forest Service, the contract aircraft company CO-Fire Aviation, the FAA and the NTSB, hopes to learn all that we can from this tragedy to advance the safe and efficient use of aviation assets to effectively and safely respond to wildland fire during daytime and potential future night operations.”
The Larimer County Sheriff's Office said the FAA and NTSB were on the ground to investigate Wednesday and that the pilot's body was recovered Wednesday morning.
"CO Fire Aviation has identified their pilot as Marc Thor Olson and has state he was an extremely skilled veteran pilot. We extend our sincerest condolence to the friends and family of Mr. Olson as well as CO Fire Aviation," the sheriff's office said.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said it first started talking with CO Fire Aviation after attending a demonstration in Loveland earlier this year.
The sheriff’s office said it continued talk with the company through the year and that it “was willing to give them the opportunity if it would benefit firefighting operations” when air resources were stretched thin.
The sheriff’s office said it entered into a verbal agreement with the company on Oct. 5 and that a written contract was still being negotiated.
“LCSO had reached out to CO Fire Aviation about their services during other fires this year, but they either did not have the availability, or it was decided air operations were not needed on those fires,” the sheriff’s office 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 and making large runs like we saw last year,” the sheriff’s office said.
The DFPC first utilized a helicopter on nighttime firefighting operations in September on the Virginia Dale Fire, the division said, after several years of studying the possibilities and conducting trials and training.
“The use of rotary and fixed wing aircraft at night, using night vision technology, is widely and successfully used by the US Military and in certain public safety environments, but there is less research and practical experience with fixed wing assets in wildland fire suppression,” the DFPC said.
Colorado conducted nighttime aerial operation trials in June, July and August 2019 with helicopters using buckets – which had never been done before at the time in Colorado – and found them to be possibly beneficial in the future, as no major issues were found in water delivery speed, communications and visuals, according to a report.
But the 2019 report also found that a “thorough risk/benefit analysis” should be conducted before any decision to fly helicopters at night for water drops are made and that lives, structures, or property of significant value would have to be under threat for them to be utilized.
The report, from the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, also said more research needed to be done regarding expanding the night-vision flights for other aircraft. It came after an interim report on nighttime firefighting was released the year beforehand.
“More research may also be needed on the feasibility of using fixed-wing air tankers, including SEATs, after dark to combat fires,” the 2019 report says. “Advances in technology that could make fixed-wing aircraft more acceptable for night missions—such as synthetic vision and terrain awareness—need to be examined as well. This would be treated as a separate evaluation.”
An archived Division of Fire Prevention and Control web page also outlines how the state was treating the nighttime helicopter program.
“Helicopter suppression work at night can add an element of additional risk to pilots and ground personnel if not planned and performed in a safe manner,” the page said. “In specific situations, night vision suppression capability can be applied to aviation missions performed by public safety and firefighting agencies. The use of aircraft at night on emergency incidents will enhance public and firefighter safety, operational effectiveness, and fiscal prudence.”
The fire was 140 acres in size as of noon Wednesday and was 15% contained. Some evacuations were also lifted on Wednesday morning. A 9News reporter spoke to Olson shortly before the flight on Tuesday evening, and the company and the night-vision goggle technology were featured in a PBS report earlier this year.