NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE The burnt-out wreckage of the Boeing 737 waterbombing plane that crashed and burned while fighting a blaze southeast of Perth, Western Australia state is seen on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. WEST AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF FIRES AND EMERGENCY SERVICES HANDOUT PHOTO VIA AFP

Pilots walk away from Australia plane crash

(UPDATED) SYDNEY: Two pilots have made a “miraculous” escape after their Boeing 737 waterbombing plane crashed and burned while fighting a blaze in remote Western Australia.

The plane left a long scar on the scrub- and tree-covered landscape when it came down while battling a bushfire in the Fitzgerald National Park about 420 kilometers (260 miles) southeast of West Australia’s capital Perth.

Aerial images taken shortly after the accident, which happened on Monday, showed thick black smoke spewing from the aircraft on the ground, with the rear of the fuselage consumed by the inferno.

The impact had left a long, sand-colored trail through the greenery behind the plane.

Emergency services images captured a short time later showed that the tail section had separated from the rest of the aircraft, which lay in cinders.

The two pilots were released from the hospital a day after the accident. They have not been identified, although officials said they were believed to be North American.

“It is nothing short of miraculous that they were able to walk from that plane,” Stephen Dawson, the western state’s services minister, told a news conference on Tuesday.

“We are very grateful that they are healthy and, well, it is a truly remarkable outcome. And it is probably testament to their skill as pilots,” he added.

The large air tanker — a converted passenger plane — hit the ground only about 20 seconds after completing a water drop in the area, officials said.

An investigation has been launched by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which said it was the first “collision with terrain” involving a Boeing 737 in Australia.

“It is a remarkable outcome that both of the crew have managed to get themselves out of the aircraft and are safe and well,” said Angus Mitchell, the bureau’s chief commissioner.

The safety regulator would be interviewing the pilots and witnesses, as well as looking at maintenance records, weather conditions and the task underway at the time, Mitchell told a news conference a day after the crash.

“A large aircraft going down is generally quite catastrophic,” he said.

But in this incident, the plane appeared to have clipped a ridge and “pancaked” to the ground, he added.

“Certainly a horizontal landing as opposed to vertical into the ground makes a big difference,” Mitchell said.

Investigators hope to get access to the crash site from Wednesday if it is considered safe, and to retrieve the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

There had been 64 firefighting aviation accidents over the past five years with the safety body looking into lessons to be learned from those incidents, he added.

The investigation would focus on ensuring procedures were as rigorous as possible “to keep the crew safe,” Mitchell said.

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