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Canadian waterbomber plane crashes amid Australia bushfires, three dead

Thursday, January 23rd 2020, 10:09 am - The premier of the state of New South Wales ordered flags to be flown at half staff on Friday as a mark of respect for the three victims, whose names have yet to be released.

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Canadian-owned C-130 Hercules air tanker crashed while fighting bushfires in Australia's alpine region on Thursday, killing all three of its crew, authorities said.

The victims were American residents, Australian authorities said, adding that they did not immediately know why the plane crashed while carrying a load of fire retardant.

"Tragically, there appear to be no survivors as a result of the crash down in the Snowy Monaro area," said Shane Fitzsimmons, the chief of rural fire services for the southeastern state of New South Wales.

"(The tanker) impacted heavily with the ground and initial reports are that there was a large fireball associated with the impact of the plane as it hit the ground. There is no indication at this stage of what's caused the accident."

REUTERS: Waterbomber, Australia FILE PHOTO: A television reporter stands in front of a Large Air Tanker (LAT) C-130 Hercules as it drops a load of around 15,000 litres during a display by the Rural Fire Service ahead of the bushfire season at RAAF Base Richmond Sydney, Australia, September 1, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

A spokesman for Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority said the aircraft went into a valley to drop the retardant and did not emerge.

Fitzsimmons said the plane had been leased by Canadian aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, which had a second C-130 Hercules working in the Australian bushfires operation.

Coulson had grounded its large air tanker fleet following the accident, he added, pending a review to rule out any systemic issue, such as a fuel problem.

REUTERS: Aus wildfiresA plane releases fire retardant over forest during bushfires in South Turramurra, New South Wales, Australia November 12, 2019 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Video taken November 12,2019. IAIN BREW via REUTERS A plane releases fire retardant over forest during bushfires in South Turramurra, New South Wales, Australia November 12, 2019 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Video taken November 12,2019. IAIN BREW via REUTERS

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it was sending a team of investigators to the crash site to collect evidence and would analyze available recorded data, review weather information and interview any witnesses.

It would take about 30 days for the release of a preliminary report, it said, but if the investigation revealed a critical safety issue it would immediately notify stakeholders.

Coulson said the plane was on a firebombing mission with a load of retardant, and added that it would send a team to the crash site to assist.

"The accident is reported to be extensive and we are deeply saddened to confirm there were three fatalities," it said in a brief emailed statement.

The deaths take to 32 the toll from hundreds of wildfires in Australia since September. One billion animals are also estimated to have perished as the fires incinerated 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland one-third the size of Germany.

REUTERS: Firefighting plane crashes in Australia EPS C

Tracking website Flightradar24 showed the path for an air tanker suddenly stopping in Peak View, south of Canberra.

According to its flight data, the aircraft departed the Richmond air force base in western Sydney around 12:15 p.m. (0115 GMT). It dropped off radar just after 2 p.m.

Peak View is close to a blaze burning out of control in the Wadbilliga National Park, the fire service said.

15,000 LITERS

The plane may have been "aerodynamically overloaded", said Geoffrey Dell, an expert in accident forensics and investigation, meaning it may have turned or changed altitude too quickly for its load, forcing it to lose altitude sharply.

"It's designed to operate to certain G (gravity)-limits, and if you go over those, different parts of the structure can be overstressed," added Dell, a professor at Central Queensland University.

Such air tankers typically carry 15,000 liters of water or fire retardant for release over blazes in areas that ground crews find hard to reach.

The C-130 excels at low altitude and speeds, as its big wings and four powerful turboprop engines allow it to maneuver and accelerate in ways other aircraft cannot, said a senior U.S. Air Force officer with more than 20 years' experience of flying and operating the plane.

"You can make a lot of mistakes and the plane will forgive you," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"It's really perfect for these kinds of missions," he said, referring to firefighting.

Australia's usually temperate mountain region has escaped some of the more devastating fires that have razed more than 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of the country's wilderness, fanned by high winds and searing temperatures.

The capital, Canberra, located just over 100 km (60 miles) from the crash site, shut its airport for several hours on Thursday because of a fire threat, while many residents were forced to seek shelter as fires raged nearby.

Damaging winds are fanning flames in parts of the Gippsland area in the southeastern state of Victoria, authorities said, near the site of fires in December.

Dense smoke also shrouded Sydney, but fire authorities said high temperatures should ease overnight.

AUSTRALIA IN MOURNING

Australia was in mourning on Friday for three Americans killed when their plane crashed while fighting bushfires in the country's alpine region, as hot, windy conditions which had fanned flames a day earlier eased in the southeast.

The premier of the state of New South Wales (NSW) ordered flags to be flown at half staff on Friday as a mark of respect for the three victims, whose names have yet to be released.

The C-130 Hercules air tanker that crashed had been leased from Canadian aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, which said it was sending a team to the site to help with emergency operations. Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators are also due to arrive at the site on Friday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, due to give an update at 2130 GMT, said earlier it was still too soon to say what had caused the crash.

"The field reports indicated that there was a pretty significant fireball associated with the plane crash," Fitzsimmons said on Australian Broadcasting Corp TV.

He said the three men on board were in their 40s and were experienced aerial firefighters.

"Remarkable individuals, well-known, highly respected and regarded as part of the Coulsons Aviation family, operating here in Australia," Fitzsimmons said.

NSW firefighters continued to battle 83 blazes on Friday, however all of those were at the lowest warning levels.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Colin Packham and Byron Kaye in Sydney; Additional reporting by Jamie Freed; and Gerry Doyle Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Jane Wardell, Clarence Fernandez, and Sandra Maler)

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