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Marines remove downed helicopter from sandbar

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 5:20 p.m. HST, Apr 8, 2011

A Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter made two trips out to the Kaneohe Bay sandbar starting at about 8:15 this morning to recover two large segments of an identical chopper that crashed there March 29 during night-time training.

The Sea Stallion from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, the same unit that the downed aircraft belonged to, circled several times over the crash site two miles from the Marine Corps base, and then hovered as slings previously placed around the fuselage sections were connected to the helicopter above.

Sea spray whipped up from the rotor wash as the helicopter held the cut-up sections, weighing 7,000 and 8,000 pounds apiece, briefly above the ocean surface as seawater cascaded out, and then deposited them at West Field, the old runway at the Marine base.

The operation removed the last large sections of the crashed helicopter, and the sandbar may be reopened sometime this weekend, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard said a safety zone around the crash site was cancelled and the area reopened to the public.

Marine Cpl. Jonathan D. Faircloth, 22, was killed in the crash, and three other crew members were injured. For HMH-363, which held an emotional memorial service for Faircloth on Wednesday, the aircraft removal was part of their recovery.

"It's certainly a tragic loss and certainly an emotional week," Lt. Col. Mark Revor, commanding officer of HMH-363, said just prior to the airlift. "I think this is a good rallying point for the squadron and another piece of the healing process that we are going to recover our own aircraft."

The two 10- to 15-foot sections with the heavy rotor head and rear cargo area were all that were left. Seventeen Navy divers and Marine Corps crews spent three days using hydraulic and gas-powered tools and cutting torches to take apart the 88-foot-long chopper.

The front end of the Sea Stallion was "severely damaged," said Navy Cmdr. Tom Murphy, commander of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One. The chopper came to rest on its side on the sandbar.

"It would have been too risky to try to lift all of (the helicopter), with the possibility of things dropping on the way," Murphy said.

A barge and crane operation were ruled out because a barge could not have gotten in close enough to make such a recovery practical, he said.

The Navy and Marine Corps crews removed 15,000 pounds of the aircraft Monday through Wednesday by hand-moving and floating the wreckage out to small boats, Murphy said. The front and tail sections, rotor blades and rear ramp were removed in the operation.

All the personnel were expected to conduct a shoulder-to-shoulder walk-through on the sandbar after the recovery to look for any other wreckage that may have remained.

The Sea Stallion had 1,300 gallons of JP-8 fuel on board in internal tanks and two external tanks — short of its 1,700-gallon maximum.

One external tank was sheared from the helicopter and just under 700 gallons leaked out, officials previously said. Randall Hu, an environmental department official with Marine Corps Base Hawaii, said about 700 gallons were recovered.

"There has been no damage to the sandbar," Hu said. "We've had Navy divers out to the site and they've inspected it and there has been no damage." The Coast Guard inspected the shoreline and found no impact, either, Hu said.

A fuel oil containment boom still was in place today around the crash site and Coast Guard, state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Marine Corps boats maintained a clear zone around the crash site and between the site and the Marine Corps base during the recovery operation.

The big Sea Stallion helicopter made a "hard impact" landing from a flying altitude of about 300 feet and there were ankle injuries and "probably some spinal injuries" among the wounded, Marine Corps officials previously said.

Injured in the crash were pilot Maj. Clinton J. Collins, co-pilot Capt. Kevin F. Hayles and crew chief Cpl. Ronnie E. Brandafino. Hayles was released on Monday and the other two Marines remain at the Queen's Medical Center, where they have been moved out of the intensive care unit, the Marines said.

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