NORFOLK, Va. — The search was continuing off the coast Thursday morning for the missing crew member of a Navy helicopter that malfunctioned and splashed down into the frigid Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, about 20 miles east of Cape Henry. Two other crew members died.
The Coast Guard cutter Shearwater remained at the scene and was joined by the Navy amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde along with a Coast Guard helicopter that searched the waters from 7 p.m. to midnight for the missing crew member of the MH-53 Sea Dragon that plunged into the water with five people aboard, a Coast Guard spokesman said this morning. The Navy was launching a helicopter this morning to continue the air effort.
The Navy promptly launched an investigation Wednesday to determine what caused the late-morning crash, but the day's efforts were focused on the five sailors who went down aboard the troubled aircraft.
With the water temperature around 40 degrees, Navy and Coast Guard officials feared their rescue mission could soon become a recovery operation.
The day began routinely enough, with two MH-53 Sea Dragons from Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, aka HM-14, leaving Norfolk Naval Station on a training mission. One of the aircraft made a distress call about 10:45 a.m., only moments before hitting the water.
It was unclear whether the crew performed an emergency water landing or lost control and crashed, said Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic.
"I don't know," said Flannery, repeating a line he uttered more than a half-dozen times during a somber news conference on the flight line where the downed aircraft had taken off hours earlier. "There's a lot we don't know right now."
After impact, the second helicopter dropped a raft into the water, and two crew members climbed in.
The Coast Guard cutter Shearwater was 2 miles away — close enough to hear but not see the crash — and made its way to the scene as the Navy dispatched two MH-60 Seahawks from Norfolk Naval Station.
The rescue helicopters arrived within 30 minutes of impact and hoisted the two sailors from the raft. Two other crew members were pulled from the chilly water about 45 minutes after the crash and were hoisted into the second Seahawk. The four sailors were flown to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Two died there, one was listed in serious condition, and the other was upgraded to fair.
When Virginia Beach rescue boats arrived near the crash location, they encountered a large debris field that spread over a half-mile area, Battalion Chief Tracy Freeman of the Virginia Beach Fire Department said.
Pieces of the helicopter were scattered across the water. A fireboat with side-scan sonar helped find the fuselage and tail section, which had sunk by the time rescue crews arrived.
The Coast Guard and Navy planned to search through the night for the fifth crew member. All would have been wearing survival suits for a flight over cold water, Flannery said, but it's unclear how long someone could survive in those conditions.
The Navy sent divers from Little Creek to the crash site. Other ships assisting the joint search and rescue operation include the guided missile destroyer Jason Dunham, the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, the salvage vessel Grasp and a cargo ship, the Medgar Evers.
At the Norfolk hospital, Chris Goetz said he saw two Navy helicopters land and drop off two crew members each.
"They came in fast, that's why I noticed," said Geotz, an electrician who was working at the facility. "They started screaming. The first person was unconscious, and his arms were dangling. The second person had his hands bandaged, and his face was burned, but at least he held his hands up."
Navy officials said they would not identify the crew members who died until 24 hours after relatives were notified.
"Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the families and the loved ones of those hurt and killed in today's crash," Flannery said.
Wednesday's crash was the second tragedy to strike the small MH-53 Sea Dragon community in as many years. It's also the latest accident for a workhorse airframe that the Navy had planned to retire more than five years ago.
According to the Naval Safety Center, the crash is the fourth major accident involving a Sea Dragon since 2012. MH-53s have crashed at a rate more than 10 times greater than other Navy helicopters over the past five years, according to the center's data.
Assigned to just two Norfolk-based squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15, Sea Dragons are equipped to detect and clear submerged mines — a critical capability in the Navy's mission of ensuring clear shipping channels abroad. The massive $50 million helicopters are also used to move people and cargo and are the Navy's preferred option for heavy-lift operations.
Sea Dragons were introduced to the fleet in the early 1980s. The service had planned to begin phasing them out in the mid-2000s, but without a viable replacement, it kept the Sea Dragons flying. The goal is to use them through 2025.
After a crash in July 2012 claimed the lives of two Norfolk-based sailors during a heavy-lift mission in Oman, the Navy uncovered systemic problems within the Sea Dragon community stemming from a lack of investment in the aging airframes.
"This didn't just happen overnight," Flannery said during a November interview with The Virginian-Pilot. "This was an atrophy over a long period of time, and the reason was, the Navy slowly but surely kind of forgot about the HM community.... It was absolutely tragic that it came to a head the way that it did."
After the Oman crash, the Navy invested millions of dollars to upgrade and better maintain its remaining 29 Sea Dragons, Flannery said in November. It added more than 100 maintenance personnel to the two Norfolk-based squadrons, enhanced pilot training and installed new leadership.
There are currently no plans to ground the Sea Dragons.
Asked Wednesday whether he had concerns about the safety of the MH-53s, Flannery said: "No, I don't. I do not."
Pilot reporters Cindy Clayton, Dianna Cahn, Lauren King and Gary Harki contributed to this report.