The deputy coroner at the scene of a fiery helicopter crash that killed five Tustin Marines said Saturday that he didn't believe the cause was pilot error, because "from what I saw, the aircraft went straight down."
Imperial County Deputy Coroner Donald H. Cole said, "I would imagine if it were pilot error, somebody would have gone ahead, moving forward and would have struck something.
"If he was going forward, then he would make an impression into the dirt. It's desert terrain, soft sand. It would certainly make an impression into the dirt. But from what I saw there was no forward action. All indications I could see--it came from above, straight down."
Lt. Shawn Cooper, a spokeswoman for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said Saturday she could not comment on the cause of the crash. The military investigation could take from six months to a year, she said.
Latest in a String of Accidents
But Thursday's accident was just the latest in a string of accidents and fatal crashes over the last two years involving the Marine Corps' Super Stallion CH-53E helicopter. The helicopters, which cost $16 million apiece and are the largest helicopters made in the United States, are manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn. They are known as "the workhorses" of the Marine Corps because each can haul as many as 55 troops.
The crash occurred at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Salton Sea Test Range in the Imperial Valley when a Tustin-based Super Stallion on a routine training mission crashed into the desert and burned. Killed were the pilot, Maj. David J. Brandenburg, 34, of Mission Viejo and his crew of four: co-pilot 1st Lt. Michael T. Reilly, 29, of Laguna Hills; Lance Cpl. Gregory L. Michaels, 19, of Tustin and Frenchville, Pa.; Lance Cpl. Thomas H. Baddeley III, 21, of Tustin and Yardley, Pa., and Cpl. Mark B. Burris, 21, of Tustin and Toronto, Ohio.
On Friday, Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who had started a congressional inquiry into the Super Stallion crashes, said that first reports suggested pilot error in Thursday's crash. Also, Badham said, his congressional inquiry probably would show that the Super Stallion has no inherent design flaw.
Neither Badham nor Sikorsky representatives could be reached Saturday, but one Sikorsky employee who declined to be identified said he believed there had been "a tail problem" with the aircraft.
He said many Sikorsky workers thought the Marine Corps did not always maintain its helicopters well. Responded Lt. Cooper: "We have our maintenance standards, and they are upheld."
A Newport Beach man who flew Sikorsky helicopters in the 1970s said Saturday that in "the pilot community," the Super Stallion was known as "a man-killer."
Nathan Rosenberg, Badham's unsuccessful challenger in the Republican congressional primary last spring, said he flew Sikorsky helicopters--but not the Super Stallion--while a Navy lieutenant during training in Opa-locka, Fla., from 1975 to 1977.
But from his own reading and discussions with pilots who now fly the Super Stallion, Rosenberg said he believed that the aircraft's design could make it unsafe.
'You Become a Rock'
In building a helicopter that could lift such enormous weights, Sikorsky had created an unwieldy aircraft, Rosenberg said. And when such an aircraft develops a mechanical problem, Rosenberg said, "the rotor stops turning. That's the thing a pilot's most afraid of because then you become a rock."
But two Marine mechanics based at the Tustin Marine Corps station said Saturday night that they had no qualms about the Super Stallion
"It does the job when a job has to be done," said one of the Marines, neither of whom wanted to be identified. But, he said, "If you're going to fly, you're going to have problems. All the aircraft have problems . . . if you have problems with helicopters (in the air) you can't correct for them."
The Super Stallion, he said, will undergo "structural improvements as time goes on."
The other Marine, a maintenance supervisor who said he has worked on Super Stallions, said, "From what I've seen, it's a very reliable aircraft. . . . I don't see any fears in the crews that fly them."
He added, "A lot of pilots have maximum confidence, especially in the Super Stallion. There's no problem with the flying crews . . . it's a solid flying aircraft."
Meanwhile Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said Saturday that he had studied the records of Super Stallion crashes and had decided its record was "well within the safety patterns of any aircraft needed to keep the peace. Frankly, we have more (men) killed in fighter jets."
Dornan described the Super Stallion as a bulky and complex aircraft that may indeed crash occasionally. "I don't want to sound cynical, but this is the price of peace," Dornan said. "We need these big, huge, ungainly pieces of equipment."
Although five men died Friday, "I'm just thankful there were not 55 Marines on board, which it can carry. . . . These kids just died keeping the peace."
He added: "That doesn't mean we can't try to make them (Super Stallions) better. Whenever I've flown on one of these, I've always felt good when I stepped on the ground. I blame high-technology (for such huge aircraft), always trying to put that big piece of engine in the air with only rotor blades and an engine."
The history of the CH-53E Super Stallion includes crashes, deaths and helicopter recalls because of defective parts.
The first fatal accident involving the Super Stallion occurred on June 1, 1984, when a Tustin-based craft exploded while lifting a truck from a ship moored off San Clemente Island. The accident killed four Marines. An investigation determined that the crash was caused by vibration in the helicopter when a sling attachment point on the truck failed.
Camp Lejeune Crash
In December, 1984, the entire fleet of Super Stallions was grounded after a Nov. 19 crash at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that killed six Marines. In that accident, the tail rotor drive system caught fire as the helicopter was lifting a howitzer. The helicopters were not allowed to fly again until a section of the tail rotors had been inspected.
Following that crash, a Super Stallion maintenance crew chief at the Tustin base made a tape recording for an attorney representing widows of two men killed. In that tape, Sgt. Dulles H. Arnette complained of a long history of mechanical problems with the CH-53E that had left pilots and mechanics on edge.
"It's getting worse," Arnette said. "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."
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," Arnette said on the tape. "We've been real lucky and we've landed, because a major component failure like that could kill somebody."
Arnette was killed on May 9, 1986, when a Super Stallion crash-landed at Twentynine Palms. Three other Marines were killed in that crash, and one was injured.
In response to inquiries from Badham, the Marine Corps last year said it had fixed two of the most serious problems that have plagued the Super Stallion, replacing the viscous damper bearings that 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 helicopter had been found to be stripped.
In another accident on July 13, 1985, a Tustin-based Super Stallion then in Okinawa struck a cable and crashed, killing all four crew members.
On Aug. 25, 1985, a Super Stallion from New River, N.C., crash-landed in a Laguna Hills field after an engine fire, killing one Marine.
In November, 1985, the Pentagon issued flight restrictions on predecessors to the CH-53E Super Stallion--including the CH-53D and CH-53A models--because of defective parts that could cause rotor blades to snap off during flight. That action grounded 181 aircraft until their rotor hubs could be inspected.
And on Oct 21, 1986, a Super Stallion made an emergency landing in an Irvine farm field after encountering what Marine Corps officials said was a transmission malfunction. None of the three men on board were injured.