7 Marines Feared Dead, 11 Saved After Helicopter Crashes at Sea - Los Angeles Times
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7 Marines Feared Dead, 11 Saved After Helicopter Crashes at Sea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seven Marines were feared lost at sea Thursday after a Marine Corps helicopter crashed while ferrying troops between ships 14 miles off Point Loma.

Of 18 Marines aboard the CH-46 Sea Knight, 11 were rescued from the water just minutes after the early afternoon crash, which occurred as the craft took off from the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on its way to the oiler Pecos.

Despite using divers, helicopters and ships, a combined rescue effort by the Navy and Coast Guard failed to find any sign of the other seven Marines or the 23,000-pound helicopter. As night fell, rescue personnel continued their search using night goggles and infrared radar.

Of the 11 Marines plucked from the water, two were taken by a Sea Knight to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, where their injuries were described as minor. The others were treated aboard the Bonhomme Richard. No names of the injured or the missing were released.

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“We try to do everything possible to make our training safe, but, inherently, what the Marine Corps does is dangerous,” said Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Patricia Restrepo. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Marines and their families.”

The crash occurred on a clear day marked by a calm sea and only light winds, which aided efforts to rescue survivors from the fully loaded aircraft.

Helicopters are known for sinking more rapidly than airplanes once they hit the water. The Sea Knight is equipped with flotation devices designed to deploy in less than four seconds to allow the craft to stay afloat long enough for people aboard to get out safely.

But Coast Guard Lt. Teddy Wooldridge, pilot of a helicopter that reached the site within 30 minutes of the 1:18 p.m. crash, said he spotted “only small little bits of debris, nothing identifiable except for parts of a cranial.” A cranial is a light helmet worn by helicopter crew members and passengers.

The CH-46 was on a training exercise with ships and troops preparing for a six-month assignment, to begin next month, in the Persian Gulf as part of the Bonhomme Richard amphibious-ready group. The Marines are assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Pendleton.

Immediate speculation about the cause of the crash centered on the possibility of a mechanical problem with the aging helicopter.

“It’s a good helicopter, but there comes a time when the maintenance requirements are so great that bad things can happen,” said Victor Krulak, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who once commanded Marines in Vietnam. “There will be lots of Marine Corps tears tonight.”

Steve Millikin, retired Navy captain and helicopter pilot, now an official with the San Diego-based Tailhook Assn., said, “I have a lot of loyalty to this aircraft, but it needs replacing.”

Military officials insist that for the thousands of day-and-night missions their helicopters fly each year in all kinds of weather, the safety record for the CH-46 is exemplary. But there have been crashes with multiple deaths, and military brass have already targeted the Sea Knight for replacement early in the next century.

In February 1997, three Marines were killed when a Sea Knight slammed into the foothills of eastern Orange County. In May 1997, four Marines were killed when a CH-46 crashed six miles off Oceanside.

In 1996 President Clinton ordered a “top to bottom” mechanical review of Sea Knights after one rolled over and burned while on the tarmac in Orlando, Fla. The helicopter had been assigned to carry reporters covering Clinton’s trip, although none were aboard when the accident occurred.

The largest loss of life in a Sea Knight crash occurred in 1986, when 15 Marines died in a CH-46 that plunged into the Atlantic shortly after taking off from the helicopter carrier Guadalcanal.

The Sea Knight, a Vietnam-era helicopter manufactured by Boeing Vitrol, is called a workhorse of the fleet for taking troops and equipment between ships or from ships to onshore installations.

The speeds the CH-46 can reach--up to 165 mph--make it useful for taking troops inland to support amphibious assaults, which are a Marine Corps specialty. CH-46s were used extensively during military operations in Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Operation Desert Storm.

In 1990, the Navy grounded all Sea Knights to correct a quill shaft problem that could cause loss of control of the main rotor. The problem was deemed corrected within a month.

In 1998, the Navy said it had uncovered problems with hydraulic pumps that had caused two crashes and numerous in-flight fires. The pumps were replaced in all active and reserve Sea Knights.

Thursday’s crash is bound to add fuel to the local political controversy over basing helicopters at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in the middle of San Diego. As part of the post-Cold War military realignment, the Miramar base was converted from Navy to Marine Corps use.

The Navy’s F-14 Tomcats were sent to other bases and the famed Top Gun school transferred to a base at Fallon, Nev. The Marine Corps transferred 48 Sea Knights and 64 Super Stallion helicopters to Miramar from bases being closed in Orange County.

Homeowners sued to block the plan, citing safety concerns, and numerous politicians rallied to their cause. Although the lawsuit did not succeed, the Marine Corps promised to realign its routes to avoid flying over heavily populated areas.

In October, a Sea Knight made an emergency landing at Torrey Pines State Beach in La Jolla after experiencing a hydraulic failure while over water.

Known for its durability, the Sea Knight can carry 14 passengers along with a crew of four. Since joining the fleet in 1964, it has undergone numerous modifications to provide more powerful engines, better weapons and greater lift capability.

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News updates on the Marine helicopter’s crash into the ocean near San Diego are available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com.


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