If Super Stallions begin flying again soon, they will do so under restrictions imposed by the Navy on Tuesday. The 92 giant helicopters, almost half of them stationed at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, will be barred from combat maneuvers or carrying heavy external loads over populated areas.
Meanwhile, the Navy inspector general, testifying Thursday before a congressional subcommittee in Washington, revealed for the first time publicly that the Jan. 8 crash of a CH-53E helicopter that killed five crewmen near the Salton Sea was caused not by mechanical problems but by "pilot error."
"The pilot got disoriented and literally flew into the ground," Rear Adm. J. H. Fetterman said.
Fetterman also testified that the Super Stallion, linked to crashes that have killed at least 20 Marines and injured 17 others, is now considered safe and should not be grounded.
The Navy inspector general acknowledged that the powerful three-engine, heavy-lift helicopter had been "a problem" but said that--because of modifications in the operation of the aircraft and further planned testing--"no general grounding is required."
Under the flight restrictions issued by Navy Secretary John H. Lehman on Tuesday, the aircraft, which is the largest mass-produced helicopter in the world, also is barred from carrying other than crew members during lifting operations and cannot make vertical landings in unprepared areas.
All Super Stallions have been grounded since Feb. 14, according to Navy officials, while suspect gear assemblies are replaced and inspected.
Despite the restrictions, Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) said he isn't satisfied with the plan. The congressman, a member of the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee, has called for the entire fleet to be grounded.