Military authorities investigating two weekend crashes 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 apparent reason.
Military officials said that because the accidents, which occurred during military maneuvers in South Korea, involved different types of helicopters made by different companies, 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? It’s got us all puzzled.”
On Friday, four Tustin-based Marines were killed when their CH-46E Sea Knight transport helicopter crashed near P’ohang on South Korea’s mountainous east coast. The cause of that crash remains under investigation.
At about 6:50 Monday morning a CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed and then burned while on maneuvers in the same area, killing 19 Marines and injuring 16 more, including one on the ground.
Miller said eyewitnesses to both accidents reported that the troop transport helicopters fell to the ground with no 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.
Investigators on Monday continued to sift through the wreckage of the big Sea Stallion helicopter that went down Sunday in a dry riverbed while preparing to drop off troops.
All but four of the soldiers aboard the Sea Stallion were stationed at Camp Pendleton. The other four were stationed at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. They included the aircraft’s pilot and co-pilot, who were killed, and the crew chief and gunner/mechanic, who survived, Maj. Gen. Miller said.
Names of the dead and injured were being withheld pending notification of next of kin, officials said.
Miller said the crew chief, who was thrown clear from the wreckage, suffered only a bump on the head. The gunner/mechanic, Miller added, “got banged up a little bit.”
The crash came as Tustin authorities were preparing for memorial services for 2 p.m. today for the four Marines killed Friday. Those Marines and the four crew members aboard Monday’s Sea Stallion crash were members of the Tustin-based Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, one of 12 such squadrons stationed at the base. The 200-man squadron had been deployed to Okinawa in January for 6 months.
The impact of the two crashes only days apart was devastating, officials said.
“It is very sobering to go through something like this,” said Cmdr. Norm Williams, a chaplain at Tustin. “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 crash began trickling in Sunday night at Camp Pendleton, where flags were flown at half-staff Monday.
As information on the casualties spread through the sprawling north San Diego County military base, Navy chaplains and Marine Corps casualty assistance officers worked through the night and early morning hours contacting the victims’ next of kin, said Gunnery Sgt. Stan Pedersen, a Camp Pendleton spokesman.
Switchboards at the base, where 35,000 Marines are stationed, were jammed with calls from concerned relatives. Callers were referred to a toll-free number (1 (800) 367-2127) at the corps’ Headquarters Command in Washington.
Miller said such tragedies are always hardest on family members of the deceased servicemen. He said that the aviators themselves 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.”
Some aviators interviewed at the Tustin base Monday agreed with Miller’s assessment. Sgt. Pete Howard, who serves as a crew chief in a helicopter squadron, said he has been in situations where the crew lost an engine during flight but managed to safely land by following proper training procedures.
Degree of Confidence
“The training and being exposed to the craft gives you a degree of confidence,” Howard said.
A Marine private who declined to give his name said news of the crashes had upset everyone on base and had made him apprehensive about future helicopter flights.
But, he added, “it can’t really deter you that much because they (accidents) happen. But it’s not like every day. Basically, you have to keep going on with your work. You can’t let it bring you down.”
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.
Monday’s crash was the fourth involving three different types of military transport helicopter in 9 days. The crashes have claimed the lives of 40 servicemen.
Own Safety Investigators
Spokesmen for the manufacturers of the two Tustin-based helicopters involved in this weekend’s fatal crashes said Monday that they are sending their own safety investigators to the scene to assist military officials in their investigation.
The CH-46 Sea Knight, which went down Friday, was manufactured by Boeing Vertol Corp. of Philadelphia. It is capable of carrying 25 troops.
Miller said the Sea Knight had just dropped off a load of 16 troops at a landing zone and was lifting off to go get another load of troops when the accident happened. As Marines watched from the ground, the twin-rotor aircraft “just came out of the sky” and “pancaked” into the earth, Miller said. The aircraft did not explode into flames.
The larger CH-53 Sea Stallion was built by Sikorsky Aircraft Co., of Stratford, Conn. It can carry 37 troops.
Monday’s crash happened as the Sea Stallion was preparing to unload Marine troops, Miller said. The aircraft had flown over its landing zone once, when it suddenly rolled into a 30-degree bank and the nose dropped, Miller said.
Pancaked on the Ground
“The thing landed flat and pancaked on the ground in a dry, stream bed,” Miller said. “The momentum carried it into the river bank and it caught fire.”
Those who survived managed to do so by either escaping the wreckage on their own or being pulled free by rescuers, Miller said. Witnesses did not report any midair explosion, he said, nor did it appear that the helicopter was overly loaded.
“That aircraft is big and strong and powerful, even with a full load of troops,” Miller said.
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. Gen. Miller said that “it was a beautiful day in South Korea” at the time of both weekend crashes.
Some of the dead in Monday’s crash were burned beyond recognition and were being identified by their dog tags or other military identification.
The critically injured were taken to the USS Belleau Wood, a San Diego-based amphibious assault ship taking part in the exercises, which are code named “Team Spirit.” The other injured were transported to a military hospital in Seoul.
History of Crashes
Accident statistics released by the Marine Corps on Monday show a history of crashes associated with both types of helicopter.
Since 1980, Marine figures show, the Sea Stallion has been involved in 17 serious accidents. In one of the more dramatic of those, seven Marines died last June 25 when a Sea Stallion slammed into a fog-shrouded hillside in southern Japan.
The Sea Knight has been involved in 36 serious accidents since 1980. Last year, four Sea Knights went down, killing 17 servicemen.
Times staff writers Kim Jackson, at Tustin, and Eric Bailey, at Camp Pendleton, contributed to this story.