Thursday, December 10, 2020

Family of pilot killed fighting California wildfire files lawsuit

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

LOS ANGELES — The family of a veteran helicopter pilot who died when his rotorcraft crashed as he was dropping water over a California wildfire filed suit Wednesday against the companies that designed and maintained the aircraft.

Michael Fournier of Rancho Cucamonga died August 19th as he was battling a blaze raging out of control in rugged, smoke-shrouded terrain near the small central California town of Coalinga, California.

He had completed several water drops and was about to make another when his aircraft suddenly crashed and burst into flames.

His wife and two daughters filed suit against the UH-1H helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that serviced it. Both were accused of negligence and wrongful death in the suit that seeks unspecified damages.

Moments before Fournier’s copter spun out of control he had radioed another pilot following him to say that his hydraulic system appeared to be failing, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The other pilot was trying to help him find a safe place to land, the NTSB report said, when he suddenly saw Fournier’s aircraft begin to spin out of control and plunge to the ground. As it went down, the pilot said he heard Fournier shout “mayday” several times.

“Once you lose your hydraulics your ability to control that aircraft is just gone,” said veteran aviation attorney Gary C. Robb, who is representing the family.

The lawsuit names Rotocraft Support Inc. of Fillmore, California, which Robb said maintained the rotorcraft, and Arrow-Falcon Exporters of Porterville, California, which manufactures, designs and sells aircraft, including the one that crashed.

An executive with Rotocraft did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press. A person who answered the phone at Arrow-Falcon’s office said she was unaware of the lawsuit and declined to comment.

It could be some time before the suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court, is resolved. Robb said the NTSB’s final report isn’t due for another 18 to 24 months.

Fournier, 52, was battling one of several blazes that raged across California last summer.

This one, called the Hills Fire, swept across 2,121 acres and took nearly 150 firefighters more than a week to contain.

It took a team of sheriff’s deputies using four-wheel-drive vehicles and, finally, traveling on foot, to reach the crash site and retrieve Fournier’s body.

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)


  1. A hydraulic failure can happen in any aircraft (and has for decades since invented) and it may not have anything to do with maintenance. Mechanical things will fail even after careful inspection. In helicopters the failures are more likely due to the vibration of the air frame. This lawsuit will go nowhere before the final investigation by the NTSB and FAA. If it was not a maintenance or design failure, then their lawsuit has a slim chance of going to court for settlement. If anything it will be an out of court settlement. And there goes any aircraft owner's maintenance fees going up utilizing whoever worked on this bird.

    That said, if the family really wanted to make a difference, they'd sue the state of California run by Idiocrats starting with Newsome's office that refuses to do any forest management and controlled burning. Why? Because it might kill some desert creepy crawler and upset environazis and animal rights fascists like PETA. There's a reason our Western Canadian neighbors to the north, BC and AB, don't have wildfire issues.

    1. I believe the federal government owns more that 90 of all public owned timberland in California.

    2. I think Newsome asked the feds to fix this.

  2. So how paying millions to lawyers will improve aviation safety and prevent this accident from happening again?
    Just like for malpractice lawsuits where lawyers were responsible for lowering standards to accept physicians from abroad with dubious diplomas so they could generate the mistakes needed for juicy settlements in the medical litigation financial industry, at the cost of actual patient deaths, here I bet the lawyers will actually strive to lower safety standards in Aviation by crippling companies that have to use a lot of money to pay huge insurance premiums instead of investing it in actual safety improvements so they can use the mishaps as financial instruments for money extraction.
    We need reform where loser pays and lawsuits on contingencies are forbidden. Simple...

  3. The Bell Uh-1 series of helicopters are very reliable aircraft. I was a crew chief/gunner on a UH-1B gunship in the 1st Cav in Vietnam 1967. We lost a lot of helicopters, mostly due to enemy fire. My bird got hit with 12.7 and .30 cal weapons through the rotor blades and tail boom but never got shot down. I flew 500 hours (about) of combat assault against the VC and NVA all over the central highlands. (An Khe, Kontum. Pleiku, Bong Song, Mang Yang Pass, Plei mei, Dak To, the Chu Pong Massif, Cambodian border, many LZ's). It's been over 50 years now and hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I was lucky.