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Families of helicopter crewmen changed in an instant

NORFOLK, Va. — As a kid growing up in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, Brian Collins had skis on his feet before he was 2. He liked to fly through the trees and go fast as the wind.

By the time he was 5, his mom stopped joining him on the slopes because she couldn't keep up.

"He was fearless," Hollee Collins said Friday as she remembered her only child. "I realized I was holding him back by shouting: 'Stop, you are going too fast!' "

"He was having so much fun," she added.

When Collins decided a few years ago to go into naval aviation, his mother reeled in her instinct to object to her son's being in harm's way. She'd learned long ago that Brian followed his dreams, and she said he loved his work as a helicopter crewman based at Norfolk Naval Station.

"He knew he made the right decision for himself," she said.

Collins, a petty officer third class, was one of the five people aboard a Navy helicopter that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday, 20 miles east of Cape Henry.

Navy rescue helicopters plucked four men from the frigid water and took them to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Collins, 25, and Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, died of their injuries.

The Navy said one of the survivors was released from the hospital Thursday, while the fourth was still at Sentara.

The fifth crew member, Lt. Sean Snyder, 39, of Santee, Calif., was still missing Friday. After more than 28 hours scouring a 600-square mile area of ocean, the Coast Guard called off its rescue mission Thursday afternoon. Navy divers from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek entered the water a few hours later to search the wreckage for the missing pilot.

Divers were in the water much of Friday, assessing the wreckage and taking photos to be used by the Navy's aircraft crash investigation board, said Mike Maus, a Navy spokesman.

The next step will be pulling the wreckage from the water. The salvage vessel Grasp, which is at the scene, is equipped to hoist the helicopter out of about 70 feet of water, Maus said.

The crash shook the small community of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, or HM-14, one of just two squadrons that fly MH-53 Sea Dragons, both based at Norfolk Naval Station.

In a statement Friday, Snyder's family described him as a decorated pilot and dedicated husband and father who takes pride in his service. "At this time, our hearts and prayers are for Sean's recovery, the other families who have suffered loss, and for the health of the hospitalized sailors."

Snyder took part in a humanitarian mission in Pakistan in 2010, delivering relief supplies and evacuating people after floodwaters displaced hundreds of thousands of residents. He spoke with a military journalist about the difficulty of flying an MH-53 thousands of feet above sea level and the extra precautions they had to take.

"A lot of us are doing this kind of stuff for the first time, you know, the high-level mountain flying," Snyder said.

Today, all MH-53 pilots are trained to fly over mountainous terrain. That change was among several that came after a deadly crash in Oman in 2012 revealed problems within the Sea Dragon community stemming from a lack of investment in training and maintenance.

The Navy has since spent millions of dollars to upgrade and maintain its fleet of Sea Dragons, which now number 28. It also added more than 100 maintenance personnel to the two squadrons, enhanced pilot training and installed new leadership.

Family members described both Van Dorn and Collins as engaging, likable men. Van Dorn, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., was a father of two young sons who loved the outdoors - fishing, especially. He surprised his wife and boys when he returned home from an overseas deployment right before Christmas and "has now left us far too soon," his family said in a statement.

"Those who knew Wes will remember his magnetic heart and the way he naturally drew people to him," the statement said. "His kindness and warmth extended from his family, friends and fellow service members to strangers he encountered even briefly in everyday life."

"In his final moments he calmly thought of and acted for others - his crew, his loved ones," it said.

Mike Flanagan, head rugby coach at the naval academy, remembered Van Dorn as an aggressive player with a big smile - "the life of the party."

"I've had a lot of special guys," Flanagan said. "Wes was one of them."

Van Dorn started out on the academy's rowing team but migrated to rugby and helped the team make it to two Final Four appearances, Flanagan said.

He spent a semester at West Point as an exchange student, Flanagan said, and when the Navy's rugby team traveled to New York to play Army, Van Dorn spent the game on Army's sidelines - wearing Army sweats.

Van Dorn's name will be added to a wall in the sports complex that honors athletes who died while serving, Flanagan said. Van Dorn is the fifth rugby player he's coached to die in the line of duty during his 23 years at the academy.

"It's hard to put another name on that wall," Flanagan said, even as he vowed not to be maudlin.

"We miss them, but we celebrate the time we had with them. We're celebrating Wes' life," he said. "We're better for knowing him."

On Friday at Collins' Ocean View home, the sailor's wife and his close friend shared stories of his disarming combination of charm and persistence.

Cheyenne Collins said the first time Brian asked her out in 2010, she turned him down because she was moving to San Francisco to study dance. But he kept trying, and soon the 22-year-old, who always had his rescue dog, Howie, in tow, won her heart.

"I remember thinking... it's really cool this 22-year-old had a dog always with him and takes care of him," Cheyenne said. "I just knew how much he loved that dog."

They lived apart for most of their brief life together. She was in San Francisco; he was home in Truckee. He joined the Navy; she stayed out West. Even after they got married in Reno, Nev., on New Year's Eve 2012 - just days after he proposed - the two lived apart for several months. He returned to Norfolk and found them a home.

Cheyenne joined him six months ago. People said she was taking a big risk, marrying and moving across the country when they'd been apart most of their relationship, she said. But when her father died two years ago, soon after they started dating, Brian had sat by her side, crying with her.

She knew he was the man she wanted to spend her life with.

"There was so much more for us left," she said Friday morning, flanked by her mother and his mother. "We just scratched the surface."

As they shared stories, Brian's friend, Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Menefee, arrived, wearing his green aircrew coveralls. Cheyenne opened the door, and the two held each other for several long moments, tears and silence filling the room.

As with Cheyenne, Brian was the one to befriend Menefee, asking to join his Frisbee game, waiting weeks for his Facebook "friend" request to be accepted - "I was just giving him a hard time," Menefee said - and being patient while he warmed up.

The two shared a passion for athletics and a healthy competition. They were alike, Menefee said, although Brian was nicer.

"At work, there was no one else I really wanted to be around," he said.

Soon, Brian had taken to Menefee's hobby of breeding snakes. He turned a third bedroom into a snake room, home to 22 ball pythons, and raised rats and mice in a shack in the backyard to feed them.

Collins also adored Menefee's 2-year-old daughter, Rylee, teasing his wife that she now had competition for his heart.

"They had a really sweet relationship," Cheyenne said, resting her head on Menefee's shoulder. "It's going to be really sad for her."

Menefee said he talked to one of the survivors of the crash, who told him that Collins had approached him shortly before taking off on Wednesday.

In his usual outgoing way, Collins extended his hand in friendship, telling the fellow aviator: "You know, I really like you. I think we will be friends."
 

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