Marine Helicopter Crash Victim Identified

Times Staff Writers

Officials at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin Monday identified the Marine killed in Sunday's fiery helicopter crash in Laguna Hills as Lance Cpl. Jonathan Prudhomme, 21, of Lake Charles, La.

Prudhomme and four other Marines were en route from Twentynine Palms, where they were taking part in training exercises, to the Marine base in El Toro, when their Ch-53E Super Stallion helicopter "experienced an in-flight fire and made an emergency landing," Staff Sgt. Vicki Conkel said Monday.

Maj. Robert Brewton, 40, the pilot, was in stable condition Monday at Long Beach Naval Hospital with a fractured left arm, Conkel said. Lt. Bruce Houser, 25; Cpl. Kenneth Moffitt, 21, and Cpl. Martin Graboswky, 21, were treated at the El Toro base medical clinic and released Sunday, Conkel said.

North Carolina Squadron

The helicopter crashed about 2:45 p.m. in a barren field in the Aliso Viejo Ranch, which is owned by the Mission Viejo Co. The fire in the wreckage ignited a one-acre grass fire, which burned for nearly two hours. Although the aircraft's tail section and rear rotor survived the crash, the front section was destroyed.

The aircraft and its passengers were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 in New River, N.C.

Since 1981, a total of 30 Tustin-based Marines have died in crashes of the Super Stallion and the earlier Ch-53D Sea Stallion.

Eleven Marines have died in crashes involving the Super Stallion helicopters since that branch of the armed services began using the craft in 1981, said Maj. Anthony Rothfork, a Washington-based Marine spokesman. A June, 1984, crash off Santa Catalina Island killed four Marines, and a November, 1984, crash at Camp Lejeune, N.C., killed six, Rothfork said.

Conkel said Monday that the Navy and Marine Corps' entire fleet of Super Stallions was grounded last December, following the November crash. The aircraft were inspected for an undisclosed mechanical problem and were returned to duty, she said.

"A one-time inspection was required of all Navy and Marine Ch-53Es," Conkel said. "It's like when civilian (aircraft) crash. They pull them all in and look at them to see what's wrong. We didn't get the results (of the inspection)."

Rothfork said the helicopters are not scheduled to be grounded as a result of Sunday's crash.

"I haven't heard any contemplation of us doing that," Rothfork said. "It was not done when the Ch-53D crashed in the waters off Japan (in July). Before a grounding is done, we have to come up with a suspect reason. We don't just ground a class of aircraft after an accident."

After the June, 1984, Super Stallion crash, which took place during routine amphibious maneuvers, the widows of the pilot and co-pilot filed suit in Orange County Superior Court. The suit, filed in May, alleged negligence on the part of Sikorsky Aircraft Co., makers of the helicopter, and AM General, which manufactured the truck the craft was lifting when it crashed.

A spokesman for Wylie Aitken, the attorney who represents both women, said the circumstances of Sunday's crash did not appear similar to the Santa Catalina crash, although that "does not excuse the fact that these helicopters have been falling at a terribly irregular rate."

The firm has yet to receive a copy of the investigation report on the 1984 crash, said the spokesman, who declined to give his name, and it may take years before the case comes to trial.

Robert Stangarone, a spokesman for the Hartford, Conn.-based aircraft company, refused to comment on the crash or the lawsuit.

"We're referring all calls to the Marine Corps," Stangarone said. "We'll assist the Marines' investigation in any way we can."

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