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Pilot Unhurt After Water-scooping Firefighting Plane Damaged in ‘Incident’ Near Circle

U.S. Forest Service

The pilot flying a small water-scooping air tanker fighting a fire near Circle escaped injury Tuesday after he ran into a problem that damaged the aircraft.

An Alaska Fire Service spokesperson said Wednesday the agency doesn’t have a lot of information yet about the “incident” that occurred when the air tanker pilot was trying to scoop up a load from a body of water near the Birch Creek Fire, burning 17 miles northwest of Circle.

“It was in the process of a water scoop. But I don’t know if they actually got the water,” said AFS spokesperson Beth Ipsen. The aircraft, an Air Tractor AT-802A Fire Boss, can carry 800 gallons, she said.

Ipsen said the agency isn’t calling the incident a plane crash. She couldn’t say what kind of the damage the aircraft sustained, pending further investigation. But she says the mishap left the single-engine water-scooper inoperable.

“With any kind of aviation investigation, it’s a long process,” she said. “And because it’s 120 miles north of Fairbanks, you can imagine it’s not easy to get to this plane right now. It is still on-scene.”

Ipsen says no injuries were reported. She says the pilot was examined on-site after the incident, then flown to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where he was treated and released.

Ipsen said the pilot’s name was unavailable, and she referred queries to the Minnesota-based company that leased the small air tanker to the Alaska Fire Service. KUAC’s efforts to contact Dauntless Air Inc., of Appleton, Minn., were unsuccessful.

Ipsen says the agency regularly contracts aircraft like the Fire Boss to help fight remote wildfires.

“We rely heavily upon aviation to get us either out to the fire, get supplies to the fire,” she said. “So, to say that aviation safety is critical to the overall mission for Alaska Fire Service is an understatement.”

An AFS news release issued Wednesday afternoon says the small air tanker was one of six aircraft assigned to help eight smokejumpers who’d been sent to fight the Birch Creek Fire. And Ipsen says the contingent halted the progress of the wildfire.

“The smokejumpers and the aircraft were able to knock that fire down – meaning it wasn’t going to grow any larger than the 15 acres. And they are in the process of mopping it up.”

The news release says the both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Interior Department’s Office of Aviation Services have been informed of the incident. KUAC’s efforts to contact the NTSB Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.