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Officials: Investigation into fatal Camp Lejeune helicopter crash could take months

Marine pilots in a CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Training Squadron 302, carry away an 8,500-pound high beam during an external lift exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., Aug. 25, 2015.

PAUL S. MARTINEZ/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By JANNETTE PIPPIN | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: September 3, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Base officials say an investigation into a training mishap that killed one Marine and injured 11 others Wednesday night aboard Camp Lejeune could take months to complete.

Few details have been released regarding the incident during which a CH-53E helicopter made what the military is calling a “hard landing” at a training site at Stone Bay.

“Although we are moving quickly on this, we know that it will likely take weeks, even months, to conduct the thorough investigations required for a mishap of this magnitude. We owe it to all involved to ensure the integrity of any information before making it public,” said First Lt. Danielle Phillips of the II Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs Office, which was handling the release of information about the incident. 

The CH-53E helicopter involved belongs to Heavy Helicopter Squadron-464, Marine Aircraft Group-29, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing based out of New River.

One Marine was transferred by medevac to the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune and pronounced dead at the hospital.

Base officials said the name of the Marine will not be released until 24 hours after the next of kin have been notified.

“The loss of a Marine or Sailor affects us all. My heartfelt condolences go out to the families and friends of our deceased Marine,” Maj. Gen. William Beydler, commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, said in a statement. “While accidents like this are disturbing to the members of our Corps, we remain resilient and faithful to one another as we respond to this tragedy.”

Of the 11 Marines injured, two remained in area hospitals in stable condition on Thursday.

Seven Marines were initially treated at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune. Six were evaluated and released and the other remains at the hospital in stable condition.

Four Marines were treated and released from Onslow Memorial. Another is in stable condition after being transferred to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville and currently awaiting a minor procedure.

The helicopter with HMH-464 crashed during Helicopter Ropes Suspension Techniques (HRST) training in a landing zone at Stone Bay, a Camp Lejeune satellite training area.

According to base officials, HRST training provides Marines with the ability to conduct helicopter insertions and extractions where helicopter landings are impractical.

Approximately 20 Marines were participating in the training, which requires them to exit the back of the aircraft via a suspended rope while the helicopter hovers above the landing zone.

Officials described a hard landing as one during which the aircraft hits the ground with greater vertical speed and force than a normal landing, typically after a rapid or steep descent. Military officials did not immediately provide information on the helicopters rate of descent.

While the incident remains under investigation by military officials, those who have flown military helicopters know the dangers of a hard landing, a damaging impact jarring to crew and aircraft.

“If you are landing with more than 25 feet per minute rate of descent, anything above that would be considered hard,” said Richard Tumas, a retired Marine Corps helicopter pilot familiar with the CH-53. “The more speed that you come down with it puts more stress on the aircraft.”

The helicopters have shock absorbers but in a hard landing they have little effect with a landing higher than 75 feet per minute rate of descent. In the simulator, pilots are not permitted to land with more than 250 feet per minute rate of descent, he said.

“It will break the landing gear and there is a possibility that the helicopter could break apart,” Tumas said. “If you’re coming in too fast, the blades could sag and then the whole thing starts coming apart.”

Gov. Pat McCrory expressed his condolences to the family of the Marine who died and said the incident is a reminder of the dangers the military faces each day.

“(Wednesday’s) tragic accident reminds us all of the dangers and sacrifices our military men and women and their families face as they protect our freedom and way of life,” McCrory said in a statement. “I know all of North Carolina joins me in prayer for the brave Marine who was killed as well as the family and the fellow Marines who will mourn this tragic loss.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, also acknowledged the risks service members face.

“Every day, our service men and women face countless dangers to keep Americans safe. We are once again reminded of the risks these brave individuals take and that they are paying the cost for the freedoms we enjoy. The Marine who lost his life and his family will remain in my prayers,” he said.

The dangers of training have hit Camp Lejeune more than once this year.

Seven Marsoc Marines and four members of the Louisiana Army National Guard were killed in March after a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed during training near Eglin, Florida.

Havelock News reporter Drew Wilson contributed to this report.

©2015 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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