Four Tustin-based Marines were killed and a fifth was injured Friday when a helicopter slammed into the ground during training exercises near Twentynine Palms, the fifth violent crash in two years of the military's largest and most powerful helicopter.
The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter with five Tustin-based Marines on board was making an approach to land, accompanied by two other helicopters, when it crashed near a designated landing zone shortly after 8 a.m., said Maj. Kerry Gershaneck, spokesman for the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.
"The cause of the accident is under investigation. We don't know why it crashed. We want to find out quickly," Gershaneck said.
The identities of the crew, based at the Marine Corps Helicopter Station at Tustin, were being withheld until notification of relatives.
Friday's tragedy was the latest in a series of crashes that have earned the Super Stallion the worst safety record of any helicopter flown by the Marines. Fifteen servicemen have been killed and nine others injured in five crashes of the CH-53E since June of 1984.
In all, 30 Tustin-based Marines have died in the Super Stallion or its predecessor, the smaller, twin-engined CH-53D Sea Stallion, since 1981. Both are manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn.
Concerns over possible defects in the tail assemblies of the Super Stallion--reportedly a potential factor in several of the accidents--prompted a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee in March to demand information from the Pentagon on what had been done to correct the problem.
Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who made the initial inquiries, said Friday that he had been assured that the tail assemblies had been fixed.
"I had been given sufficient assurances to be convinced that there was no further action necessary at the time. I had the assurances from the Marine Corps and the contractor," Badham said.
But if Friday's accident proves to be mechanically related, Badham said, "I will immediately call for a thorough investigation to see if what did happen had any relation whatsoever to any of the previous accidents."
Silence on Investigation
The entire fleet of CH-53Es was grounded in December of 1984 following a crash at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that killed six Marines. The helicopters weren't allowed to fly again until a section of the tail rotors had been inspected--a section thought to be at fault in the Camp Lejeune crash.
The Marine Corps has not released the results of investigations of the earlier accidents. Sikorsky has referred all inquiries to the military.
The CH-53E, known as the "workhorse" of the Marine Corps because of its hauling capacity--it can lift 32,000 pounds, or 55 troops and a crew of three--began replacing the earlier CH-53D and CH-53A models in 1981.
The Pentagon issued flight restrictions on all the earlier models in November of last year because of defective parts that could cause rotor blades to snap off during flight--essentially grounding 181 aircraft until their rotor hubs could be inspected.
While the earlier CH-53D models have been involved in a number of accidents, most recently a July, 1985, crash during a training flight in Okinawa that killed four Tustin-based Marines, the flight restrictions were not related to any of the accidents, said Maj. Anthony Rothfork, a spokesman for Marine Corps headquarters in Washington.
The grounding order was issued when routine inspections at North Island, near San Diego, revealed that there was "excessive clearance" between the rotor hub and the main rotor. There have been no flight restrictions issued on the CH-53E since the grounding order in 1984, nor are any planned, Rothfork said.
"We have confidence in that aircraft and in its abilities. We have not found any reason to cease operating that helicopter," he said. Investigations of previous Super Stallion accidents have revealed "no common threads" that would lead the Marine Corps to believe they experienced any common mechanical problems, Rothfork said.
Widows Filed Suits
The first of the fatal CH-53E accidents occurred in June of 1984, when a Tustin-based craft crashed near San Clemente Island, killing four Marines. The widows of both the pilot and co-pilot filed suit in Orange County Superior Court, alleging negligence on the part of Sikorsky Aircraft Co. and AM General, which manufactured a truck the craft was lifting when it crashed.
Three of the four subsequent serious crashes have also involved Tustin-based Super Stallions, the most recent of which led to the death of a lance corporal when a Super Stallion with five aboard plunged into a vacant field in Laguna Hills in August of 1985.
The Marine injured in Friday's crash, who was not identified, was listed in good condition at the base hospital at Twentynine Palms with minor burns.
June 1, 1984: Tustin-based helicopter off San Clemente Island. Four killed.
Nov. 19, 1984: Camp Lejeune, N.C. Six killed.
Feb. 7, 1985: Tustin-based helicopter in South Laguna. Major damage, four injuries.
Aug. 25, 1985: Tustin-based helicopter in a vacant field in Laguna Hills. Four injured, one killed.
May 9, 1986: Tustin-based helicopter at Twentynine Palms. Four killed, one injured.