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Investigators Puzzled by Crashes of 2 Helicopters

Times Staff Writers

Military authorities investigating two crashes in three days of Tustin-based transport helicopters in which 23 Marines were killed said Monday that both accidents happened under clear skies and that the aircraft seemed to drop for no reason.

But because the accidents, which occurred Friday and Monday in the course of military maneuvers in South Korea, involved different types of helicopters made by different companies, military officials said they were not considering grounding any aircraft.

“If there was any inter-connectability (between the accidents), I would be concerned,” said Maj. Gen. D.E.P. Miller, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro and Tustin. “I guess if I have any concern it’s what caused the accidents. Was it pilots? Was it mechanical?”

On Friday, four Tustin-based Marines were killed when their CH-46E Sea Knight transport helicopter crashed near P’ohang on South Korea’s east coast. The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

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And on Monday at 6:50 a.m. (10:50 a.m. Sunday PST), a CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed while on maneuvers in the same area, killing 19 Marines and injuring 16 more, including one on the ground.

Miller said witnesses to both accidents reported that the troop transport helicopters fell to the ground without any collision or sign of engine trouble. Night goggles, which have been blamed on several recent military helicopter crashes, were not at issue because the flights were during daylight.

Crashed in Dry Riverbed

Investigators Monday continued to sift through the wreckage of the huge Sea Stallion, which went down in a dry riverbed while preparing to drop off troops.

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All but four of the soldiers aboard the Sea Stallion were stationed at Camp Pendleton. The other four were stationed at the Tustin Marine Air Corps Station. They included the aircraft’s pilot and co-pilot, who were killed, and the crew chief and gunnery/mechanic, who survived, Miller said.

Names of the dead and injured were being withheld pending notification of relatives, officials said.

Miller said the crew chief, who was thrown clear, suffered only a bump on the head.

The crash came as Tustin authorities were preparing for memorial services today for the four Tustin-based Marines killed Friday.

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Authorities said the two crashes coming so closely together have shocked personnel at the Tustin base.

“It is very sobering to go through something like this,” said Cmdr. Norm Williams, a chaplain at the base. “They train so hard and are so professional, so whether it’s a mechanical problem or pilot error or whatever, it shocks everyone.”

Word of the second crash began trickling in Sunday night at Camp Pendleton and flags on base flew at half-staff Monday.

As information on the casualties spread through the north San Diego County military base, Navy chaplains and Marine Corps casualty assistance officers worked through the night and early morning hours contacting relatives of the victims, said Gunnery Sgt. Stan Pedersen, a Camp Pendleton spokesman.

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Effect on Families

Miller said that such tragedies are always hardest on family members. He said the aviators themselves tend to accept the risks of their job.

“All aviators believe as I do--that we’re in a very dangerous business and they know something can happen,” Miller said. “These guys are so finely trained that they don’t worry about these kind of things.”

Both crashes occurred during joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in a mountainous region about 15 miles west of the port city of P’ohang, authorities said.

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Monday’s crash was the fourth in nine days involving three different types of U.S. military transport helicopters. The crashes have claimed the lives of 40 soldiers.

“All of the crashes will be thoroughly investigated,” said Pentagon spokesman Jim Kudla, who added: “The (Department of Defense) obviously is very concerned anytime there is a crash.”

Spokesmen for the manufacturers of the two Tustin-based helicopters involved in this weekend’s fatal crashes said Monday they are sending their own safety investigators to the scene to assist military officials in their investigation.

The CH-46 Sea Knight that went down Friday was manufactured by Boeing-Vertol Corp. of Philadelphia. The CH-53 Sea Stallion that crashed Monday was built by Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn.

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Weather Was Clear

“Our reaction is, anytime you lose four lives it’s a sad situation,” said Frank Lake, spokesman for Boeing Helicopters, which recently changed its name from Boeing Vertol.

Lt. Col. Thomas Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said the copter went down in clear though hazy conditions and that weather was probably not a factor in the crash.

The critically injured were taken to the Belleau Wood, a San Diego-based amphibious assault ship taking part in the exercises, which are code-named Team Spirit. Others injured were taken to a military hospital in Seoul.

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