A mechanic killed in the crash of a Marine Corps Super Stallion helicopter last week left behind a chilling tape recording in which he complained of a long history of mechanical problems with the aircraft that had left pilots and mechanics on edge.
"It's getting worse," Sgt. Dulles H. Arnette told an attorney's investigator just after the June, 1984, crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion near San Clemente Island that killed four Marines. "Everyone's really edgy, everyone's looking at things they didn't look at before . . . and we've come across other things that have been wrong."
Arnette, 25, a Super Stallion maintenance crew chief at the Marine Corps' Tustin base, said that defective parts, faulty construction and mechanical breakdowns had long plagued the military's largest and most powerful helicopter--problems that became increasingly apparent as the number of Super Stallion crashes mounted.
On Friday, Arnette and three other Marines died in the crash of a Super Stallion that was making a landing approach at the Marine Corps' combat training center at Twentynine Palms, the sixth major crash of the CH-53E in the past two years.
A total of 66 servicemen have died in the CH-53E or its smaller predecessors, the CH-53 A and D Sea Stallion, since 1984. There are 59 of the massive troop- and equipment-carrying helicopters still in service, including the "Marine One" fleet of presidential helicopters.
"It's kind of an eerie tape. It's like he's predicting his own death," said Gene Buhler, investigator for Santa Ana attorney Mark P. Robinson Jr., who is representing the widows of two of those killed in a 1984 crash in a lawsuit against Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn., manufacturer of the Super Stallion.
"He was trying to do something," Robinson said. "He was trying to give us information to help us do something about it. He was concerned. He was trying to help--maybe himself."
Marine Corps officials said Tuesday that the investigation of the most recent crash has ruled out any malfunction of the tail rotor or tail rotor drive, frequent factors in past Super Stallion crashes.
Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who announced that he is seeking a full investigation into the safety of the CH-53E, said the Marines have assured him that "pilot error" was the most likely cause of the accident. "There's nothing in the wreckage to indicate anything mechanical went wrong," Badham added.
Claims Crews Weren't Told
But Arnette, speaking on a tape that had been gathering dust in Robinson's law offices, said that mechanics who worked on the Super Stallion were not only concerned about mechanical problems, they also were concerned that the Marine Corps and Sikorsky knew about problems and weren't telling the flight crews.
"We've had problems. There's no doubt about it. We've had problems. Everybody knows about them. Sikorsky knows about them," Arnette said on the tape.
In at least two cases, he said, the damper that controls the left and right movements of the main blade has broken in flight, potentially allowing the blades to slap against each other and break apart.
Mechanics also had detected failures in the bearings that support the main rotor at the point where it connects to the drive shaft, a critical connection. "We've had those break before flight. We've been real lucky and we've landed because a major component failure like that could kill somebody. We've just been real lucky with them," Arnette related.
The bearing supporting the drive shaft where it connects to the tail rotor--which provides directional stability during flight--has also failed, a factor in two of the past accidents and a problem which the Marine Corps says it has corrected at Sikorsky's expense.
Blamed the Factory
In the careful inspections that followed the June, 1984, crash, Arnette said: "We found bolts that were not torqued that should have been torqued, or under-torqued--there wasn't enough torque applied to them." Because many of the aircraft had only a few hours of flight time, he said, "these were basically things that had to happen at the factory."
Only moments before one flight, Arnette said, a Super Stallion pilot discovered a sheared-off bolt, a crucial connector on the main rotor. The connector apparently had been broken because of excess hydraulic pressure, a problem almost immediately corrected when Sikorsky delivered four new helicopters with new hydraulic-pressure systems.
Mechanics suddenly realized that someone had known earlier about the hydraulic problems but had not alerted pilots and crews who were flying the older helicopters, Arnette said.
"I got real upset then," Arnette said. "Because when I found out we were getting the new planes because of those lower links breaking, then I got all (angry). Because I figured, well, hell, it was a problem that they knew about before."
Sikorsky has referred all questions to the Marine Corps, and Marine officials at El Toro, who supervise operations at Twentynine Palms and Tustin, said they would have no comment on the tape recording until they have reviewed it.
Cites Safety Record
But in a prepared statement Tuesday, Maj. Anthony Rothfork of Marine Corps headquarters pointed out that since tail rotor drive modifications were completed in September of last year, the CH-53E had flown more than 6,000 hours without mishap.
"When compared to other helicopters in their first five years of operational service, the CH-53E has been involved in about half as many mishaps for comparable hours flown," Rothfork said.
Still, Badham on Tuesday informed House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) by letter that he is seeking a full inquiry on the CH-53E.
"I believe that an investigation is appropriate and necessary as the safety of the CH-53 aircraft has come under question" Badham wrote.
"In order to assure the safety of the surrounding community, and to ensure the safety of the air crew who fly the CH-53E aircraft, we must seek out and make known all of the facts related to the CH-53 mishaps which have occurred," he said. "Only in this way will we be able to reinstill confidence in the local community and among the Marine air crew that the CH-53E is a safe aircraft which poses no hazard to their safety during normal operations."
In response to inquiries from Badham in March, the Marine Corps said that it has fixed two of the most serious problems that have plagued the Super Stallion, replacing the viscous damper bearings which support the drive shaft near the tail rotor with harder rubber dampers and strengthening the coupling on the tail rotor drive shaft.
All of the modifications were completed by September of 1985. In addition, the Navy Department replaced several locknuts on the main rotors of the helicopters that were found to be stripped during recent inspections, Marine Corps officials said.
"It is a fine piece of machinery," one general assured Badham during the March subcommittee hearing. "It is not unlike other airplanes that have had growing pains . . . . We are absolutely pleased with it."
Meanwhile, at Tustin and Twentynine Palms, the CH-53Es that had been temporarily placed on flight restrictions were returned to service Monday afternoon after a series of safety briefings for pilots and crew members, base spokesman Lt. Timothy Hoyle said.
Killed along with Arnette in Friday's crash were the pilot, Capt. Michael D. James, 33, of Santa Ana, a native of Phoenix; the first mechanic, Lance Cpl. Michael A. Weaver, 20, of Tustin, a native of Belle Vernon, Pa., and a passenger, Capt. David R. McHugh, 29, of Yorba Linda, a native of Ansley, Ala. Private memorial services for the crewmen are scheduled today at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. Arnette, a native of Silver Spring, Md., lived in Garden Grove. The only survivor, the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Andrew D. McClintock, 24, of Laguna Hills, a native of Alexandria, Va., was reported in stable condition at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Times staff writer Bob Secter contributed to this story.
Nine major crashes involving two types of Marine helicopters--the two-engine Sea Stallion (CH-53A and CH-53D) and three-engine Super Stallion (CH-53E)--since 1984:
March 24, 1984: A CH-53D crashes into mountain in Korea during a night troop operation, killing 29. Probable cause: air crew error, lack of crew coordination, supervisory error.
April 14, 1984: A CH-53A hits the ground during a turning maneuver in Nevada. One killed. Probable cause: air crew error, lack of situational awareness and knowledge.
June 1, 1984: A CH-53E crashes in the water off San Clemente Island, killing four. Aircraft disintegrated in flight while hoisting a truck. Probable causes: material failure and design deficiency of aircraft and truck.
Nov. 19, 1984: A CH-53E hits the ground while attempting to lift a large gun at Camp Lejeune, N.C., killing six. Probable cause: material failure and design deficiency.
Feb. 7, 1985: A CH-53E from Tustin hits the ground while hovering. No deaths. Probable cause: air crew error, lack of crew coordination, induced vertical oscillation.
May 6, 1985: A Ch-53D experiences apparent transmission failure and falls into Sea of Japan, killing 17. Accident under investigation.
July 12, 1985: A CH-53D appeared to have struck a logging cable during tactical formation training at Okinawa, killing four. Accident under investigation.
Aug. 25, 1985: A CH-53E from El Toro displays a fire-warning light and crash-lands in a vacant field in Laguna Hills, killing one man. Accident under investigation.
May 9, 1986: A CH-53E crash-lands at Twentynine Palms, killing four and injuring one. Accident under investigation.