Black Hawk helicopters collided in midair before crashing in Kentucky, preliminary report says
Stars and Stripes April 12, 2023
Two Black Hawk helicopters collided in midair during a nighttime training flight before they went down in a field in Kentucky two weeks ago, killing nine soldiers, Army investigators said in a preliminary report.
The helicopters — which belonged to the 101st Airborne Division at nearby Fort Campbell — were participating in a night exercise on March 29 when they crashed in Cadiz, Ky. Five soldiers were riding in one Black Hawk and four were inside the other. Cadiz is located about 25 miles northwest of Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
“While conducting night training in a military operations area/special use airspace, two HH-60 aircraft collided midair,” the Army Combat Readiness Center said in a Preliminary Loss Report. “The collision resulted in nine fatalities and the total loss of both aircraft. A Centralized Accident Investigation team from U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center is leading the investigation.”
The report is the first time military officials acknowledged that the helicopters collided. The HH-60 is a Black Hawk variant that’s often used for medical evacuation purposes.
Investigators with the ACRC from Fort Novosel in Alabama have been studying the crash and were still in Kentucky as recently as last Thursday, officials said. Fort Novosel is the former Fort Rucker, which formally changed names on Monday.
According to the preliminary report, there have been an average of seven Class A flight mishaps a year since 2018. During the same span, an average of five soldiers have been killed per year in on-duty flight accidents. A Class A mishap is one that creates substantial property damage or causes death or serious permanent injury.
“This was the fourth Class A aviation mishap of  and one above the number of similar mishaps during the same time last year,” the report added.
Black Hawks have been in service for more than 40 years and are considered some of the most reliable utility airships in the U.S. military. Before the preliminary report, two retired Black Hawk pilots told Stars and Stripes it was a virtual certainty the helicopters in Kentucky had collided with each other in some way.
“It almost had to be a midair collision for something like that to happen,” said Elizabeth McCormick, a former Army chief warrant officer 2 who flew Black Hawks until she left the service in 2001. “The blades could shred apart … and could go through the engine. It’s not a good thing.”
“[Black Hawk manufacturer] Sikorsky has done a good job of building an aircraft that protects the human beings inside,” added Chris Marvin, a retired Army captain and Black Hawk pilot who flew until he retired from service in 2009. “In Army aviation, there are only specific instances where everybody will die because of the way the aircraft crashed.”
Due to the ongoing investigation, the Army and Pentagon have both given only limited details about the crash so far.
“There is a bunch of stuff we can eliminate just because of the fact everybody died,” Marvin said. “In order for every single person on these aircraft to die … they must have been flying at a substantial airspeed and they must have put the aircraft itself into a significant impact.”
Marvin said the Kentucky crash brought back memories of a personal experience when his Black Hawk crashed in Afghanistan in the 2000s. He said that helicopter was traveling at a decent speed and was flying at a decent altitude when it went down. But in that incident, only one crewmember was killed.
“There were 15 people on board and we had one fatality. Fourteen people survived,” he said. “When it landed, it hit on the ground and flipped upside down. It did a bunch of stuff when we were flying. That’s a credit to Sikorsky and what they built.”
Over the years, numerous Black Hawk variants have been produced for the different services. The Coast Guard, for example, flies the MH-60 Jayhawk for search and rescue missions. Both McCormick and Marvin told Stars and Stripes that flying Black Hawks in formation can be extremely difficult, especially if there are additional obstacles like limited visibility due to lack of sunlight or inclement weather.
“Flying multi-ship, you definitely leave the flight tired,” McCormick said. “It requires a super, super high level. And it could be freezing cold outside at the end of a two-hour flight and you’d be drenched in sweat just because of the level of focus and attention required in that flight mode.”
Investigators recovered both of the helicopters’ flight recorders, known as “black boxes,” at the crash site. They record technical data while the airships are in flight, and both should tell investigators precisely how the helicopters were operating at the time of the crash. The boxes would not, however, reveal non-technical factors such as human error.
“We may never know if it was pilot error, or a malfunction of the aircraft or something else, but I do think we will understand a little bit more about what the aircraft were doing,” Marvin added. “Hopefully this will give us another lesson in how to make aviation more safe.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the Army and Air Force to quickly adopt recommendations from a safety study he ordered after a Black Hawk crashed in Rochester, N.Y., in 2021, killing three crewmembers. The Government Accountability Office report said there were almost 300 aircraft accidents in the Army and Air National Guard between 2012 and 2021. It also says more than 90% of the crashes involved human error and makes several recommendations — such as making sure pilots receive enough training, tracking incidents and compliance, and adding more maintenance techs so repairs can be done quicker.
The Kentucky crash was the second involving a Black Hawk in a little more than a month. On Feb. 15, two veteran Tennessee Army National Guard pilots were killed when the UH-60 Black Hawk they were flying crashed during a training flight near Huntsville, Ala.