Inside aerial firefighting: Here's how 2 men were fighting wildfires before fatal plane crash

BrieAnna J. Frank
Arizona Republic

The recent deaths of two wildfire officials in a plane crash has drawn more attention to the work they were doing as part of the suppression efforts: Aerial reconnaissance, supervision and control

As wildfires grow bigger and the wildfire season longer each year, fire officials and aviation experts expect an increase in aerial firefighting investments in the years to come.

The firefighters who died while fighting the Cedar Basin Fire northeast of Wikieup on July 10 were later identified as 48-year-old Matthew Miller and 62-year-old Jeff Piechura. Miller was a fire pilot with Falcon Executive Aviation, Inc., which is contracted by the U.S. Forest Service, while Piechura was an air tactical group supervisor with the Coronado National Forest. 

A preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed an earlier witness account that the left wing of the plane may have fallen off. The report noted the wing was located approximately 0.79 miles away from the main wreckage and did not appear to have heat damage. 

The Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services, in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, is conducting the investigation.

Eric Jones, associate professor and chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Aviation Maintenance Science Department, called aerial reconnaissance "inherently dangerous" because of the lower flight altitude that requires pilots to navigate wind, smoke and other conditions that they could avoid at the typical flying altitude of about 35,000 feet. 

"It's a very animated ride," he said. "You're going to be bumped around much more than you would be if you were at altitude ... you're feeling all of those forces that impact an airplane, that allow it to fly. You're experiencing it in a much faster way because you're closer to the ground, and a much more active way."

Matthew Miller, pilot with Falcon Executive Aviation (left), and Jeff Piechura, air tactical group supervisor.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, called aerial firefighting a "very critical piece" of wildfire suppression efforts.

Some aircraft douse the flames with retardant or water, while others may direct air traffic over the fire and "provide an overall picture" of its magnitude, she said. Additionally, aircraft can fly over the fire at night and use infrared technology to pinpoint the hottest parts of the fire and determine where it is likely to spread, using that information to better strategize the response.

She said most federal firefighting agencies have increased their aerial assets over the last several years and that she expects the trend to continue.

"Especially knowing we're now seeing fire activity year-round in some geographic areas, knowing we're seeing drought, we're seeing less precipitation in the winter which typically lines up to create more extreme fire seasons," she said. 

Arizona officials, including Gov. Doug Ducey, announced in June that the 2021 wildfire season was expected to be similar to 2020's, which was among the worst of the last decade.

More than 1,100 wildfires have scorched more than 580,000 acres of land in Arizona so far in 2021, according to data from the Southwest Coordination Center.

By comparison, more than 700,000 acres were burned by mid-August 2020, which was more land burned than in 2018 and 2019 combined. Around 165,000 acres were burned in 2018 and more than 380,000 acres were burned in 2019.

And with more expected blazes will come a greater need for aerial firefighters and the resources to support them, according to several experts who spoke to The Arizona Republic about where they see the industry heading.

Former group supervisor expects aerial firefighting industry to grow

A plane drops slurry to fight the Tenderfoot Fire near Peeples Valley on June 9, 2016.

Ken Perry, a retired smokejumper and air tactical group supervisor, said he was "shocked" by the crash, which to his recollection marked only the second or third time an air tactical group supervisor was killed on the job since he started more than 20 years ago.

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Perry said there are risks to the job but added that he doesn't consider an air tactical group supervisor to be in a particularly dangerous position compared to others on any given wildfire scene.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group requires air tactical group supervisors to have experience as either a division or group supervisor or as a Type 3 incident commander, as well as completion and certification of its position task book, which outlines the competencies, behaviors and tasks necessary to do the job. They also have training courses in topics including aerial supervision and crew resource management.

A plane drops fire retardant over Museum Fire north of Flagstaff on July 21, 2019.

Air tactical group supervisors sit in the passenger seat as a pilot flies above the fire. They essentially serve as air traffic controllers, managing the various helicopters, air tankers and other aerial resources within a fire area, Perry said.

Some wildfires are smaller and may only have one or two helicopters in its area. In that case, Perry said, an air tactical group supervisor might not be necessary to coordinate air traffic.

"It's when you start mixing fixed-wing air tankers and helicopters doing bucket drops and delivering supplies, when it gets complex like that, that's when you want to order an ATGS," he said.

Prior to becoming an air tactical group supervisor, Perry was a smokejumper — a wildland firefighter trained to parachute into fires as part of the suppression effort.

While his job as an aerial supervisor was to coordinate the comings and goings of wildfire aircraft, Perry said the decision about what resources are dispatched to an Arizona wildfire scene is made by the Southwest Coordination Center based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Factors that may go into that decision include the fire's acreage, activity and whether any infrastructure, such as homes, are threatened.

Aircraft involved in crash is 'tried and true,' aviation professor says 

A DC-10 tanker plane drops fire retardant on the Tenderfoot Fire, as seen from Peeples Valley on June 10, 2016.

Jones called the July 10 crash "horrific" but said "you never want to speculate" about potential causes. 

"You're always wondering what happened and how this tragedy occurred," he said. "Oftentimes it's best to let the investigation take its course."

Jones concurred with John Cox, retired airline and corporate pilot and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, who previously told The Arizona Republic he did not believe an FAA airworthiness directive issued in December requiring inspection of a washer on each wing is likely to be connected to the crash.

Jones said airworthiness directives are "not unusual at all" and that any given airplane is likely to have "dozens" of them to improve or retool the craft over the course of its life.

He added that the Beechcraft King Air C90 is a "tried and true" aircraft.

"If I was going to choose one airplane to conduct that sort of mission, that King Air is a very, very good airplane," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in 2015 finding that 78 out of 298 wildland firefighter deaths between 2000 and 2013 were aviation-associated. 

A report issued by the U.S. Fire Administration in October 2020 said there were two aircraft firefighter fatalities while responding to wildfires in 2014, two in 2015, zero between 2016 and 2018 and one in 2019.

Use of drones to fight fires is on the rise

In 2020, 37-year-old helicopter pilot Bryan Boatman died while responding to the Polles Fire near Payson. A preliminary report on the crash released in August said that the plane was wobbling in mid-air prior to going down but did not identify a probable cause.

Safety protocols for aerial resources are "very strict," Gardetto said, adding that crashes are usually because of "some kind of unforeseen occurrence" as opposed to a mechanical failure.

"Obviously fighting fire from the air comes with inherent risks, but we can often mitigate most of those risks with all the regulations and inspections that are done regularly," Gardetto said.

Gardetto said drones are also becoming an increasingly common and attractive tool to fight wildfires because they reduce risk involved with human piloting and are less expensive.

Fire personnel prepare drone operations for Tiger Fire, burning east of Crown King in Prescott National Park. The wildfire was started by lightning on June 30, 2021.

The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management started its drone program in 2019, calling drones a "critical tool" to help with situational awareness, data gathering, mapping and heat sensing. They have also been used during planning for prescribed burns, according to the department.

But drones are limited in ways that other resources are not.

"Machines can only go so far until you need that human, critically thinking brain involved," Gardetto said. 

Perry said drones can do "a lot" of aerial reconnaissance and have become more popular among wildfire agencies in the time since he's retired. 

Though they've become more sophisticated over the years, Perry said he doesn't believe drones will be able to compete with other wildfire aircraft — at least in his lifetime.

A single-engine air tanker, for example, can deliver 800 gallons of fire retardant while a large airtanker can carry between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons.

By comparison, the Spanish aviation company Drone Hopper is developing drones that could carry about 160 gallons. A Silicon Valley startup, Rain Industries, is testing drones that can hold up to 400 pounds, or around 50 gallons, of liquid retardant.

Perry also doesn't see drones taking over the job he once did.

"I don't think a drone is ever going to, in my opinion, replace an ATGS because you have to be able to see the environment, you're not just looking at a computer screen like you would with a drone," he said.

Perry said he's seen an increase in investments in aerial firefighting resources over the last five or ten years, and anticipates that continuing in the future as wildfires get bigger, more frequent and more devastating.

"It's not going to go away — there's no way we're not going to fight fire with airplanes anymore," he said. "I think downrange there will have to be more and more air tankers and more helicopters, which means we're going to have to have more people to supervise them."

Perry said when he was doing the job, he traveled "well over" 200 days per year to fires around the country and that it "started to be taxing."

"It took a hit 20 years ago, and now we have fire seasons lasting year-round, basically, and so that's why they need more people," he said. "They need them to supervise fires, but they need them so they don't burn out because it's a very demanding job."

Republic reporter Monica D. Spencer contributed to this article. 

Reach the reporter at bfrank@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8529. Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank.