A cockpit voice recorder was inactivated when a Coulson Aviation C-130 air tanker crashed in New South Wales in January, killing three crew members.
According to a preliminary report released Thursday by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), there is no cockpit audio from the flight, a factor in a continuing investigation into the cause of the crash.
Investigators recovered the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) two days after the aircraft went down following a fire-retardant drop on the Adaminaby Complex bush fire in New South Wales.
“Although the recorder assembly was damaged in the accident, ATSB investigators were able to successfully recover all the data from the CVR’s crash protected memory module,” said Greg Hood, ATSB chief commissioner. “Unfortunately, the CVR had not recorded any audio from the accident flight. Instead, all recovered audio was from a previous flight when the aircraft was operating in the United States.”
Crash investigators have other evidence they can turn to, including witness video, Hood said. ATSB must still complete a teardown and inspection of the aircraft’s engines and propellers, review its maintenance history, performance and handling characteristics, and analyze witness reports. Investigators are also using 3D drone mapping to gain a better understanding of the crash sequence.
“The ATSB’s on-site examination of the wreckage, damage to the surrounding vegetation, and ground markings indicated that the aircraft initially impacted a tree in a left wing down attitude, before colliding with the ground,” Hood said.
Strong winds were reported at the time of the crash and have been cited as a possible factor.
“ATSB preliminary reports do not contain findings, identify contributing factors or outline safety issues and actions, which will be detailed in an investigation’s final and any interim reports,” said Hood, noting that probes can take up to 18 months.
“We are continuing to work with the ATSB, and we are providing every assistance to them as part of the investigations. It’s important for us, for our team and for the families of those we’ve lost, to understand what happened that day,” said company CEO Wayne Coulson.
The crash — at the height of the worst Australian wildfire season on record — claimed the lives of American crew members Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan, all military veterans. The crew was honoured Feb. 22 by the New South Wales government in a state memorial service attended by family members as well as survivors of other fire season victims, fellow firefighters and Coulson staff.
In a post on the company’s Facebook page, Wayne Coulson said grieving family members expressed gratitude for the show of support at the ceremony.
“The loss of Ian, Paul and Rick are felt very deeply by the families, and felt very deeply by their team members and the Coulson family,” he said. “People in Australia, and New South Wales, in particular, have continued to show how grateful they are for the work of the teams and for the work of all firefighters during what has been a terrible bushfire season for Australia.”
An Airservices Australia recording found no distress calls were made prior to the Jan. 23 accident. The crash ignited a fuel-fed fire that destroyed the air tanker, a former U.S. Navy plane built in 1981.
Coulson Aviation specializes in adapting and leasing aircraft to deliver advanced firefighting capabilities. In November 2019, the company landed a $52-million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to install retardant delivery systems on seven C-130s for use in California.