Red Bluff pilot killed in firefighting helicopter crash
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Red Bluff pilot killed in firefighting helicopter crash

Aug 13, 2023

A Red Bluff resident was one of the three men killed in a Sunday night firefighting helicopter accident on Sunday night near Riverside County.

Tony Sousa, 55, was killed when the helicopter he was piloting hit another chopper in midair while The two aircraft were fighting the Broadway Fire near Cabazon.

The other two victims were assistant chief Josh Bischof, 46, Capt. Tim Rodriguez, 44, according to Cal Fire.

A Facebook post on Monday by Air Shasta Rotor & Wing, Inc. confirmed that one of its aircraft was involved in the incident and that Sousa was one of their pilots.

“Cal Fire is reporting that there was a midair collision between two aircraft, but few other facts are known at this time regarding the chain of events that preceded the incident,” the post said. “What we do know is that there was a subsequent crash, and our friend Tony Sousa as well as two Cal Fire employees on board, perished in this tragic accident. The NTSB is currently investigating the crash, and we hope to learn more information in the coming days. It is an understatement to say that we are saddened. Tony was a great guy and a valuable member of our team. He will be greatly missed.”

Sousa was also a part of QRC Karts in Red Bluff, which also issued its own statement on Sousa.

“All of us at QRC Karts are saddened to learn of the passing of Tony Sousa. An original house car driver, father, and great friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Sousa family during this devastating time. ”

Cal Fire is assisting the National Transportation Safety Board with its investigation into the collision of two helicopters Sunday above Cabazon that killed three people. Officials at the state firefighting agency also want to learn for themselves what protocols may have been violated.

The Bell 407 spotter helicopter took off for the 20-mile trip to the Broadway fire from Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base at 6:34 p.m., circling briefly while en route, followed by the Sikorsky S-64 “Skycrane” three minutes later. The helicopters, under contract to Cal Fire, collided over the fire at 6:45; the Bell crew died in the crash while the Skycrane landed safely with two aboard.

Four other firefighting aircraft, including a spotter airplane, were over the fire at the time.

Typically, Capt. Richard Cordova, a spokesman for the Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department, said the spotter aircraft, known as an “air attack,” will arrive first. Then every other aircraft must call in for an assignment when it is 7 miles out. The spotter puts each at a specific level of airspace and calls in each one to make a drop. If an airplane is dropping, the spotter will move the helicopters out and call them back after the drop is made.

The spotters fly clockwise above other aircraft so they can more easily watch the water- or retardant-dropping aircraft that are flying counterclockwise.

“It’s a well-orchestrated event that takes place, and we respond to thousands of fires, and that ballet works seamlessly quite a bit of the time,” Cordova said Tuesday, Aug 8.

The oddly-shaped Skycrane — picture a helicopter with no belly — has a long suction tube that can fill its 2,000-gallon tank in one minute. That tube, called a snorkel, hangs down continuously, Cordova said.

According to data on, the spotter plane was, for reasons under investigation, at a lower altitude than the Skycrane moments before the collision.

“Once we figure out what actually happened, we make sure we enforce whatever rule was broken, or if there wasn’t a rule broken on that particular incident, we will create some sort of policy to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Cordova said. “We have an outstanding safety record. When something like this happens, the majority of the time, it is human error and not mechanical, at least for us. Obviously, there was some type of miscommunication that took place, but it could have been multiple things (that went wrong).”

The pilot of the spotter airplane apparently witnessed the collision or its aftermath and contacted the Cal Fire dispatch center in Perris.

“Perris, Broadway air attack, I have a mid-air collision with two of the copters involving 37 Sierra and 5 Alpha Sierra. Like to request one additional air attack and two additional copters,” went the transmission, recorded on the Broadcastify public safety radio website.

The internal probe has not begun, Cordova said. For now, he said, Cal Fire is focusing on planning three funeral services.

Federal Aviation Administration records show Sousa was licensed as a commercial pilot and flight instructor for helicopters and must wear glasses when at the controls.

The Broadway fire was held to 3 acres. Cal Fire has a stated goal of holding 95% of brush fires to 10 acres or less, and such a large response was launched Sunday, Cordova said, because officials were concerned that the flames could enter Cabazon neighborhoods and climb the steep mountain face up to Idyllwild.

“Hit it hard and fast,” he said.

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