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Badly Damaged Firefighting Plane Removed From Remote Site to Aid NTSB Investigation

U.S. Forest Service

A heavy-lift helicopter moved a badly damaged firefighting airplane over the weekend from a remote site near Circle to an airstrip in Central. From there, the airframe and engine will be taken to the Lower 48, where federal investigators will study them to determine what caused the water-scooping aircraft to go down on July 14th.

The chief of Alaska’s National Transportation Safety Board office says a crew contracted by the insurer of the Minnesota-based company that owns the wrecked aircraft moved it to Central so it can be transported by truck to a facility where the NTSB can take a closer look at it.

“The airplane is going to be relocated to Texas,” Clint Johnson said, “and that’s where we’ll basically do our wreckage layout and see if we can figure out exactly what happened here.”

Johnson says the water-scooping plane leased by the Alaska Fire Service was heavily damaged in what the NTSB has classified as an aircraft accident. The single-engine Air Tractor AT-802A Fire Boss went down into a stand of trees after the pilot was trying to scoop up some water to drop onto the Birch Creek Fire burning near Circle, about 120 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

Johnson says the plane had to be partially dismantled before it could be moved, because of its heavy weight.

“This was an accident – it was a non-injury accident, thankfully,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The airplane did sustain substantial damage, which puts it into the accident category.”

The pilot was the only person aboard the aircraft when the accident occurred. He was examined at the scene, then medivaced to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where he was treated and released. Johnson says NTSB planned to talk with him as part of their investigation. He says the agency officials aren’t ready to talk about possible causes of the accident. But he says they hope to release more information soon.

“The preliminary report will probably be out early next week – mid next week, at the latest,” Johnson said.

A final report on the investigation likely won’t be released for several months.

Johnson says the owners of the aircraft, Dauntless Air Inc., of Appleton, Minn., plan to repair the Fire Boss while it's at the facility in Texas.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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.