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Australian transportation safety report details B.C. air tanker crash that injured pilots

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A British Columbia aviation company says it is making changes to its airborne firefighting operations after the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau released a preliminary report into a firebomber crash that injured two pilots earlier this year.

Port Alberni-based Coulson Aviation says it is increasing both the minimum altitude and drop speeds of its firebombers after one of its converted Boeing 737s crashed while fighting a wildfire in western Australia's Fitzgerald River National Park on Feb. 6.

Tanker 139, a converted Boeing 737 aircraft, crashed in February with a two-person crew on board. (Coulson Aviation)

The two-pilot crew sustained minor injuries when their "Fireliner" aircraft, dubbed Tanker 139, struck a ridgeline during a retardant drop and became airborne again, travelling about 69 metres while shedding debris, before striking the ground a second time and sliding to a stop.

CABIN DOOR STUCK

"Both pilots were unable to open the cabin door as it had buckled and the co-pilot was unable to open the right-side window," according to the ATSB report.

"The captain observed out of the left side window that a post impact fire had started and managed to open that window on their second attempt. Both pilots then exited out of the left window and moved clear of the wreckage and fire."

The pilots were rescued by a fire control helicopter after two other air tankers dropped retardant on the burning plane, believing the crew were still inside, the report says.

Tanker 139, which was destroyed in the blaze, was one of the newest aircraft in Coulson Aviation's fleet of six Fireliner tankers created from modified commercial passenger jets.

The plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered and taken to an ATSB facility in Canberra where they were repaired and assessed. (ATSB)

The extent of the damage to the plane precluded any inspection of the cockpit and flight instruments, according to investigators.

However, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered and taken to an ATSB facility in Canberra where they were repaired and assessed.

In response to the crash, Coulson Aviation has increased its minimum retardant drop height from 45 metres above ground to 60 metres. It has also updated its minimum drop airspeed from 1.25 times the aircraft's stall speed, or minimum steady flight speed, to 1.35 times.

The February crash followed a similar Coulson crash that killed three American crewmembers fighting wildfires in Australia in 2020.

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