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Tanker pilot dies in crash while fighting Colorado wildfire

Marc Thor Olson was a US military veteran with thousands of hours of flying experience

An air tanker pilot died in a crash Tuesday evening while attempting to extinguish the Kruger Rock wildfire in northern Colorado.

The pilot has been identified as Marc Thor Olson, according to CO Fire Aviation Inc., the company that owned the aircraft.


Related: What does ‘containing a wildfire’ actually mean?


“The CO Fire Aviation family is deeply saddened by the sudden, tragic loss of one of our brothers serving as a tanker pilot,” officials said in a statement on Facebook.

CO Fire Aviation also said that Olson was a veteran who served for 32 years in both the U.S. Army and Air Force. He began flying planes in 1979 and amassed more than 8,000 total flight hours, including 1,000 hours of night flight.

Olson took off from Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland just before 6:15 p.m. MT, circling the fire a few times before dropping off the radar and never returning to the airport, according to FlightAware.

The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office began investigating reports of the crash around 6:37 p.m., according to a press release. They located the crash site around 9:49 p.m. and said Olson was the only person in the plane.

The aircraft is an Air Tractor 802F single-engine, fixed-winged tanker equipped with night-vision technology. It allows pilots to see terrain through smoke and clouds, making it easier to locate hot spots. The Tuesday flight, designed to test the system during actual fire conditions, was the first at night in Colorado for this aircraft.

CO Fire Aviation said it’s cooperating with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation SafetyBoard as the agencies investigate the cause of the crash.

Olson told KUSA-TV that he was excited to “make history” with the flight.

“Pretty cool thing to be a part of, I think,” Olson said before taking off. “This is the culmination of about five years of pretty hard work.”

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control said Wednesday that it’s been studying the use of aircraft in night operations on woodland fires at its Center of Excellence in Rifle.

Through its studies, the organization found that aerial support at night potentially offers increased advantages in fighting wildfires because of lower temperatures, increased humidity and reduced winds compared to daylight hours. However, most of the studies focused on helicopters and not fixed-winged aircraft.

“The use of rotary and fixed wing aircraft at night, using vision technology, is widely and successfully used by the US Military and in certain public safety environments, but there is less research and practical experience with fixed wing assets in wildland fire suppression,” officials said in a release.

Tuesday night’s crash wasn’t the first time a fixed-wing air tanker crashed while responding to a wildfire. On July 18, 2002, a four-engine World War II vintage PB4y crashed while dropping retardant on a 4,100-acre fire near Estes Park.

An investigation by the NTSB determined the cause of that crash was fatigue cracks that caused the wings to snap off.

Six years later, firefighting pilot Gert Marais of Fort Benton, Montana, was killed when his single-engine plane crashed after dumping fire retardant at Fort Carson, Colorado.


Related: Self-described ‘shaman’ arrested in California wildfire arson


“Your prayers are appreciated during this difficult time,” Colorado Fire Aviation officials said.

The fire that started Tuesday morning was burning 146 acres and was 60% contained as of Thursday evening, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.