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Report: Engine fire caused fatal Sigonella crash

By KENDRA HELMER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 25, 2004

An engine fire is to blame for last July’s fatal helicopter crash in Sigonella, Sicily, according to an investigation report received last week by Stars and Stripes.

The MH-53E’s No. 2 engine caught fire after it stalled due to foreign-object damage, according to the judge advocate general final investigation report. Commander, Naval Air Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet released the report, completed last month, to Stars and Stripes.

No one survived the July 16, 2003, crash.

The Heavy Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Four crew included the squadron’s executive officer, Cmdr. Kevin A. Bianchi, 40, from Maplewood, N.J.; Lt. Peter Ober, 27, a pilot from Jacksonville, Fla.; Petty Officer 1st Class Brian P. Gibson, 33, an aviation structural mechanic from Greenwood, Va.; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Cox, 21, an aviation electrician’s mate from Duluth, Minn.

Ober, the pilot, had 664 flight hours and was described in the report as an “above average and competent aviator.” The report states Bianchi, the co-pilot with 2,630 flight hours, was a “highly respected and competent aviator.”

Detailed are the final radio transmissions of the crew, who were on a routine training mission on a clear day:

Bianchi: “GCA [ground control approach].”

Ober: “Alright, coming down fast.”

Bianchi: “We are declaring an emergency at this time.”

The final transmission came 10 seconds later, at about 5 p.m. It isn’t clear who was speaking. “We are on fire, a main transmission, we’re landing on a field 10 miles on the 280.”

According to the report, when the emergency was declared, the Sea Dragon’s altitude was about 2,900 feet. It started descending but appeared to level off at 1,900 feet for six to 12 seconds, then continued to descend.

Witnesses reported seeing it fly at low altitude and slow airspeed in a controlled flight before it landed hard and fast on a pond embankment about 10 miles west-southwest of Naval Air Station Sigonella.

Ober and Bianchi died of blunt-force injuries, burns and smoke inhalation.

Gibson and Cox died of blunt-force injuries.

The investigation found that the crash was caused by a fire that started after the No. 2 engine stalled because of damage from an An3 bolt.

The report noted that No. 2 engines have a history of fire following in-flight stalls or engine shutdowns.

Other factors in the crash were strong winds and coordination between the cockpit and aircrew.

The report states that while the men died not due to their own misconduct, “The actions of the aircrew following the in-flight emergency may have contributed to the tragic outcome. ...”

According to the report, the pilots passed up several suitable landing sights instead of landing immediately according to procedure. The report also said the crew failed to increase power to arrest the 99-foot-long copter’s descent prior to impact.

The one-year anniversary of the crash recently was recognized by the squadron with a service of remembrance, said Cmdr. Greg Adair, squadron commander.

“I kind of like to think we honor their memories by continuing on and taking care of our mission,” he said in a telephone interview from Sicily.

Rita Barrie, Bianchi’s wife, said she appreciated the Navy and community support she and their three young children received after his death.

Barrie said she wants to encourage military families to financially prepare for tragedies.

“Always be prepared for what you think never may will happen,” she said in a telephone interview from Gladwyne, Pa. “It’s a horrible thing to think about, but if you want to have your family taken care of, you really need to protect yourself beyond what the government is going to give you. … It’s not enough to keep you financially stable for a lifetime.”

She said she especially thought it would never happen to her because her husband had lost his brother in a helicopter crash.

“Obviously, it can happen to anyone,” she said.


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