LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. — An air tanker pilot died in a crash Tuesday night while fighting a wildfire burning near Estes Park.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office began investigating reports of the crash around 6:37 p.m., according to a press release. The crash site was located around 9:49 p.m. near the south end of Hermit Park. The pilot was the sole occupant of the plane.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
FOX31 confirmed just one air tanker was flying Tuesday night. The aircraft, owned by CO Fire Aviation, took off for a first-of-its-kind mission for nighttime firefighting in Colorado. The flight was set to last about an hour.
The plane took off from Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland just before 6:15 p.m. It circled the area of the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park a few times before dropping off the radar, never returning to the airport, according to FlightAware.
Personnel with CO Fire Aviation were headed to the crash scene after reports first surfaced.
In a statement, Gov. Jared Polis’ office said the aircraft was not contracted by the state or federal government, as Larimer County is the lead on the fire.
“Our prayers are with the pilot, their family, their aviation family, and the firefighting community,” the statement said.
Aerial firefighting at night is new in Colorado
Nighttime aerial drops are new to this fire season in Colorado.
The aircraft in question is an Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss that’s equipped with night-vision technology known as “synthetic vision.” It allows pilots to see terrain through smoke and clouds, and the Tuesday night flight was designed to test the system during actual fire conditions.
Attacking fires at night enables crews in fire-prone areas like Colorado and California to gain an advantage with more precision in locating hotspots. Coordination with firefighters on the ground provides a better plan for containment.
Wind speeds can also be lower at night, providing better conditions for aerial firefighting.
The technology has been used in the military.
Dangers of night flights for fire suppression
But night flying comes with additional safety hazards.
Colorado has been looking into nighttime aerial firefighting for several years. The legislature in 2014 created the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting to research night aerial operations for wildland firefighting.
In a 2019 report, the group found that Colorado’s growing population justified a need for night flights but pointed to the hazards that come with them.
Even with night-vision technology, pilots can have trouble seeing certain aerial hazards, according to the report. Pilots can lose situational awareness or suffer spatial disorientation because of limited depth perception and fields of view.
The night-vision technology can also increase pilot fatigue.
Kruger Rock Fire conditions
The fire that sparked Tuesday morning was burning 133 acres and was 15% contained as of Tuesday night.
LCSO said 150 personnel were working the fire, with additional resources called in. Fire crews were continuing to monitor and work on the fire overnight, LCSO said.