Alberta rethinks firefighter pilot training after death exposes gap in program

The company that employed a firefighter pilot who died after his plane flew into a fire tornado did not offer formal training on fire behaviour or potential weather hazards around a fire.

'Training program did not include any formal training with respect to fire behaviour.'

This photo shows a smoke column, created by what the Transportation Safety Board called an 'L-shaped heat-source cross flow.' (Government of Alberta, with TSB annotations)

The Alberta company that employed a pilot who died fighting a fire did not offer formal training on fire behaviour or potential weather hazards around a fire, the Transportation Safety Board has found.

A report from the TSB cited this gap as part of its findings into the crash of an air tanker that flew into a fire tornado in northern Alberta last year.

The 38-year-old pilot was part of a crew of planes from a company called Conair that fought a wildfire near Cold Lake in May 2015. Conair is headquartered in B.C. but has operations throughout western Canada. 

The TSB said high temperatures whipped up a huge column of smoke and rotating air — leading to a 'fire whirl.' A large-scale fire whirl is similar to a tornado generated by a thunderstorm.

If fire behaviour training is not provided, there is a risk of aircraft being flown into unsafe conditions.- Transportation Safety Board

"The company training program did not include any formal training with respect to fire behaviour and the possible weather hazards around a fire. There is no regulatory requirement for such training," the report reads.  

"If fire behaviour training is not provided to personnel involved in fire-suppression activities, there is a risk of aircraft being flown into unsafe conditions."

The report explained the 38-year-old did not see the whirl because "it had not yet ingested enough loose debris to make it visible." The whirl also developed outside the fire perimeter.

After flying into the core of the whirl, the tanker pitched vertically - nose up. It then spiralled downward and crashed. The pilot did not survive the impact.  

Even the most experienced fire experts are calling the crash and its apparent cause unusual.

"It is extremely unique," said Wally Born, executive director of the wildfire management branch for the Alberta government. The plane was under contract to the Alberta government at the time.

"We always knew that (fire whirls) formed, but it's new that they are formed outside the fire perimeter and at this strength."

This picture of a funnel cloud developing in a smoke column was taken roughly one minute before the crash. (Government of Alberta, with TSB annotations)
The report did not mention whether this kind of fire whirl is unique. In fact, the TSB listed high-profile wildfires around the world where similar fire tornadoes occurred.  

Investigators recommended changes to both training and equipment.

Training changes

Pilots who fly aircraft that fight Alberta wildfires belong to a small, elite group. The core pool of planes the province contracts for this work consists of 16 air tankers and eight bird dog aircraft. Conair and a company called Air Spray are the only two providers they use.

Born said the Alberta government will review those companies' training manuals to see if they need changes.

Born added provincial representatives will also talk about the report and its findings at a meeting of an air tanker safety board in the fall.

Conair commissioned a fire behaviour study to look at how environmental conditions contributed to the crash. The company will brief its crews on the findings.

In March 2016, the company added a session to its training program that talked about environmental risks around wildfires. 

The TSB also pointed out the air tanker in the crash employed a four-point harness, which it said does not protect pilots from extreme turbulence as effectively as a five-point harness.  

Conair has installed five-point harnesses in its air tanker fleet.

The type of plane involved in the crash is called a Fire Boss aircraft. (Alberta government)