Thursday, August 20, 2020

Bell UH-1H Iroquois, N711GH: Fatal accident occurred August 19, 2020 near New Coalinga Municipal Airport (C80), Fresno County, California

Michael John Fournier

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. 

The National Transportation Safety Board did not travel to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities:
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Fresno, California 
Cal Fire; Sacramento, California 
Guardian Helicopters; Van Nuys, California 
Honeywell; Phoenix, Arizona 

Location: Coalinga, CA 
Accident Number: WPR20LA280
Date & Time: August 19, 2020, 09:45 Local
Registration: N711GH
Aircraft: Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc. UH1H 
Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Public aircraft

On August 19, 2020 about 0945 Pacific daylight time, an Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc. UH-1H, N711GH, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Coalinga, California. The pilot, the sole occupant was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a public use firefighting flight.

The accident flight was the pilot's first day working the Hills Fire, which had started four days prior. The pilot departed at 0846 followed by another pilot that was flying a Bell 212 helicopter for another operator.

Investigators reviewed flight track data covering the area of the accident during the time surrounding the accident. Additionally, the Bell 212 pilot had an app recording his track that he provided to investigators. After departure, both helicopters flew south until reaching a small lake/reservoir (the dip site) to fill up the external load buckets attached to their respective helicopters (bambi buckets). Thereafter, they flew to a predetermined areas and began to unload their water on the fire. After releasing the water, they would return back to the dip site. After the accident pilot delivered about two buckets of water to a division he moved to another division delivering about five buckets of water.

The Bell 212 pilot recalled that after he departed the dip site with a bucket of water, he heard the accident pilot communicate over the air-to-air radio that he felt "abnormal noises and vibrations" and that he was going to make a precautionary landing. The Bell 212 pilot dumped his water and then caught up to the accident helicopter with the intention of assisting the pilot find a good area to land; he remained a few hundred feet behind and above the accident helicopter. The accident helicopter was about a 1,000 ft above ground level (agl) and maneuvering at an airspeed between 60 to 70 kts. The accident pilot then stated that the helicopter's "temps and pressures are good." A few seconds later the accident pilot stated "it's my hydraulics." The Bell 212 pilot relayed that that he should make a right turn and fly down the ravine to less mountainous terrain (the flats). 

The helicopter started to make a right turn and then banked back to the left while losing airspeed. The Bell 212 pilot noticed the helicopter still had its 100 ft longline and bambi bucket attached and told the accident pilot to "release your long line and get forward airspeed," The accident pilot then stated "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." The left turn steepened remaining in a level pitch attitude, and the helicopter began to make three or four 360° rotations (rapidly swapping the front and back), while drifting north-east. The helicopter then pitched in a nose-low, near vertical attitude and collided into terrain. A fire immediately erupted and the Bell 212 pilot made multiple trips to the dip site to fill his bucket and drop water on the accident site. 

The helicopter came to rest on a 35° slope with the main wreckage about 25 yards downslope from the initial impact. A majority of the wreckage was consumed by fire; the tail rotor assembly was intact. The tail rotor blades were intact, with no evidence of rotational scoring. The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further investigation.

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc.
Registration: N711GH
Model/Series: UH-1H 
Aircraft Category: Helicopter
Amateur Built: No
Operating Certificate(s) Held: Rotorcraft external load (133), On-demand air taxi (135), Agricultural aircraft (137)
Operator Designator Code:

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: VMC
Condition of Light: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation:
Observation Time: 09:00 Local
Distance from Accident Site: 11 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: 21°C
Lowest Cloud Condition: Clear 
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: / ,
Lowest Ceiling: None 
Visibility: 3 miles
Altimeter Setting: 
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Departure Point: Coalinga, CA (C80) 
Destination: Coalinga, CA (C80)

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal 
Aircraft Damage: Destroyed
Passenger Injuries:
Aircraft Fire: On-ground
Ground Injuries: N/A 
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal 
Latitude, Longitude: 35.969165,-120.322502 (est)

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may contact them by email, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email
Michael John Fournier

A pilot from Rancho Cucamonga fighting one of hundreds of wildfires in the state was killed Wednesday, August 19th, when his helicopter crashed near Coalinga in the Central Valley, authorities said.

The pilot, identified by the Fresno County Sheriff-Coroner Office on Thursday as Michael John Fournier, 52, a husband and father of two teen-aged girls, was contracted by Cal Fire to work a water-dropping mission on the Hills Fire in western Fresno County, according to Cal Fire.

The Hills Fire has been active for four days and as of early Thursday, had grown to 1,500 acres and was 35% contained, said Emily Harlow, spokesperson for Cal Fire.

The pilot was working with Guardian Helicopters, based in Fillmore, which had a contract with the state fire agency, Cal Fire, to provide emergency services on a call-when-needed basis, said Zoe Keliher, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fournier’s Bell UH-1H helicopter crashed in rugged terrain around 10 a.m. Wednesday, about 9 miles south of the city of Coalinga, said Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti on Thursday, Aug. 20.

A 14-member search-and-rescue team spent more than six hours and used bulldozers in order to reach the crash site, west of Highway 33. The pilot was the only person on board the helicopter, Cal Fire reported.

The sheriff’s team draped the body with an American flag, Botti said. “Even for contracted pilots, we wanted to pay our respects to him so we put a flag over him,” he said.

Fournier was remembered Thursday by friends as a cross-fit athlete and former football star and coach from Charter Oak High School in Covina. He played on the 1985 CIF-SS championship team.

The news of his death was circulating Thursday among friends, teachers and coaches who are affiliated with the school district in the San Gabriel Valley.

“Everybody is super devastated for the family,” said Steve Smith, 51, a member of the championship team who like many on the squad, remained friends with Fournier 35 years later. “He has a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old,” Smith said, his voice trailing off.

Donations, as well as comforting posts to Fournier’s family, have been filling a GoFundMe page organized by his wife, LeAnne Fournier. The page says Mike Fournier was in a fatal helicopter crash on Aug. 19 and the funds will be used to support his wife and two daughters. As of 2 p.m. Thursday, donations reached $37,500.

“He was loved and liked by everyone who met him; it was impossible to resist his kindness and warmth,” posted Olivia Anderson. Friends and former colleagues called him “a true hero” and a “brave man.”

Craig Evans, 52, who also played football with Fournier at Charter Oak High and currently teaches physical education at Royal Oak Middle School in Covina, said his friend shared with him his passion to become a helicopter pilot when they were in high school.

Evans said Fournier, a professional helicopter pilot for more than 20 years, had worked for utility companies, hoisting workers to tops of electrical towers. He recently began contracting with Cal Fire to fight wildfires.

In a phone conversation just two weeks ago, Evans said, Fournier was excited about working on wildfires.

“He was telling me how he was moving into firefighting. He knew the risks of flying. He flew all the way until he couldn’t fly anymore,” Evans said on Thursday.

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