Nepalese soldiers searched a rugged area north of the capital of Kathmandu on Tuesday looking for a missing U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y helicopter with eight people on board, as the U.S. military denied reports that the aircraft had been spotted.
The Huey went missing Tuesday as it was delivering supplies to earthquake-stricken regions of Nepal.
The U.S. military withheld names of those aboard, but Kansas television station KWCH12 identified the pilot as Capt. Chris Norgren of Wichita. The station reported it spoke to the pilot’s father, who said the family was notified by the Marines that his son was missing.
Nepalese Interior Ministry spokesman Laxmi Dhakal told the German Press Agency dpa that the helicopter was spotted in the Tamakoshi region north of the capital, but there was no word on the condition of the six American Marines and two Nepalese soldiers because Nepalese search helicopters had not been able to land there.
However, a Pacific Command spokesman said reports that the Huey had been spotted were wrong.
“Anything that you’re reading about anything saying it was spotted is erroneous,” Army Maj. David Eastburn, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, told Stars and Stripes. “It’s complete speculation.”
Eastburn said he had just gotten off of the phone with the task force headquarters in Nepal and there was no word yet on the location of the missing helicopter.
“They’re running lots and lots of flight hours searching right now, but they don’t have anything, nothing substantial to report.”
The Reuters news agency quoted Maj. Rajan Dahal as saying there were unconfirmed reports the helicopter had come down in a river but “none of our choppers has seen it yet.”
He said 400 Nepalese soldiers were searching the area but had not found the missing aircraft.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren was quoted by the Marine Corps Times as saying officials were hopeful the Huey had not crashed because “there has been no [emergency] beacon, no other signs — no flames, no smoke, no hole in the ground — to indicate that there was a crash.”
The missing Huey, assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, disappeared around 7 p.m. Tuesday, according to statement from Joint Task Force 505, which is leading U.S. relief efforts in Nepal following last month’s deadly earthquake.
“At this time, the status of those manifested on the flight is unknown,” the statement said.
The incident came the day after a second large earthquake struck Nepal, a nation already reeling from last month’s temblor, which claimed more than 8,000 lives. The latest quake, which measured 7.3 and was centered midway between Kathmandu and Mount Everest, struck hardest in the foothills of the Himalayas, triggering landslides, but it also shook the capital badly, sending thousands of terrified people into the streets, according to The Associated Press.
The Marine Huey vanished near Charikot while delivering aid and evacuating casualties to Kathmandu, the JTF 505 statement said.
Two MV-22Bs tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft were preparing to join the search, and additional MV-22 crews were on standby Thursday. A battalion-sized Nepalese ground force had also moved into the area to assist with the search. The 36th Contingency Response Group, also with JTF 505, is continuing to support civil aviation authorities offloading humanitarian aid at Kathmandu’s international airport, a JTF 505 statement said.
Warren, quoted by AP, said an Indian helicopter heard radio chatter from the Marine aircraft about a possible fuel problem. He said the Huey, carrying tarps and rice, had dropped off supplies in one location and was en route to a second when contact was lost. He said officials are hopeful the aircraft is simply missing because there has been no smoke or other signs of a crash.
One of the Marine Huey pilots in Nepal, Capt. Duncan James, 32, of Brady, Texas, said May 3, his first day in-country, that the “Yankee” model helicopters deployed for the relief mission are brand new.
The Marine Corps pilots are used to flying the unpressurised helicopters at 5,000 feet above mountains near their home station — Camp Pendleton, Calif. — but anticipated flying as high as 10,000 feet during the earthquake relief mission, he said.
“It is a little more challenging flying at that altitude, but we have trained to do it,” he said.