FORT CARSON, Colo. - A Montana pilot killed this spring while fighting a Colorado wildfire repeatedly warned officials that winds were too strong, but was urged to push on.
The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that 42-year-old pilot Gert Marais of Fort Benton noted high winds but was urged by a dispatcher to change course and head to a Fort Carson fire.
Marais died on April 15 when his single-engine air tanker nose-dived into the ground.
Officials with the Rocky Mountain Area Fire Coordinator Center, which manages firefighting efforts in Colorado, did not immediately comment on the NTSB report released Dec. 18 and reported on Tuesday in the Denver Post.
The NTSB report concluded that Marais, who flew a single-engine air tanker for an aviation company that contracted with the Department of Defense for firefighting, cited high winds several times.
A second pilot flying a companion plane told NTSB investigators that Marais did not want to head to Fort Carson if winds were stronger than 23 mph. Actual wind speed there was gusting to about 38 mph.
According to the NTSB report, dispatchers instead asked Marais and the second pilot to go to another fire that had forced the evacuation of the plains town of Ordway.
While Marais was on the way to the Ordway fire, the dispatcher returned, asking again for the planes to head to Fort Collins, where 9,000 acres eventually burned.
According to the NTSB report, two pilots decided that since they were already halfway to Fort Carson or Ordway, "they would at least check out the flight conditions" at the Fort Carson wildfire. An incident commander at the fire asked Marais to drop fire retardant at one spot and when Marais warned of winds and turbulence, he was directed to another area.
As Marais approached an area to drop water and foam on the wildfire, he lost control and sent a series of mayday calls and the words "I'm going down." Marais slammed into the ground at a 45-degree-angle in winds investigators determined were about 34.5 mph.
Firefighters were unaware Marais had water and foam, not fire retardant, and told NTSB investigators they would not have asked him to make that particular drop.
NTSB investigators earlier said there was nothing wrong with Marais' plane, a single-engine Air Tractor AT-602 registered to Aero-Applicators Inc. in Sterling. Marais has more than 10,000 hours of flying time.
The same day Marais died, two other volunteer firefighters working the Ordway fire were killed when their truck crashed where a fire-damaged bridge had collapsed.