A Marine’s family had been notified of his death and three others remained hospitalized yesterday as crews worked to contain a fuel spill and investigators started looking into why an aging but war-tested CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashed in shallow water in Kaneohe Bay on Tuesday night.
Other island military crashes
Recent armed services air accidents in Hawaii include:
Officials are expected to release the dead Marine’s name today. Three other crew members were in stable condition yesterday and recovering from multiple injuries at the Queen’s Medical Center, said Lt. Col. Michael Antonio, the Kaneohe Bay base’s deputy commander.
Antonio, speaking to the news media, said he was “offering the deepest and most sincere condolences from the Marines and sailors of Marine Corps Base Hawaii” to the helicopter squadron involved and families and friends of those involved in the accident. “Our prayers go out to them,” he added.
The injured Marines “are all expected to be OK,” Antonio said. It was a “hard impact” landing from a flying altitude of about 300 feet and there were ankle injuries and “probably some spinal injuries,” he said.
One of the crew members among the two pilots and two crew chiefs on board the single-rotor helicopter was pronounced dead after being recovered, Antonio said.
The 88-foot-long helicopter, part of the Kaneohe-based Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 known as the “Red Lions,” left the base a little after
7 p.m. for routine training and made it about two miles out to sea.
CH-53D SEA STALLION
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“They departed over the waters of Kaneohe Bay and within five minutes the aircraft had a problem,” Antonio said.
A mayday was called and radio contact was lost, officials said.
“Looking at their ranks, they are experienced (aviators),” Antonio said. “They just came back from a seven-month deployment, so they are experienced.”
HMH-363 is one of three squadrons at Kaneohe Bay with 10 aging Sea Stallion helicopters and about 250 personnel per squadron, officials said.
The helicopter that crashed was 40 years old, the Corps said. All of the remaining Marine Corps’
CH-53 “Delta” models were consolidated in the mid-1990s at Kaneohe Bay, and are slated to be replaced by newer CH-53E Super Stallions and MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys.
Still, the older Sea Stallions have been medium-lift workhorses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Red Lions returned in October from a “very successful” deployment to Afghanistan, Antonio said.
Crews worked yesterday to drain a 680-gallon fuel tank that detached from the downed helicopter, which rolled on its side on the sandbar in Kaneohe Bay.
Kim Beasley, general manager of the Clean Islands Council, said it appeared that one of two external fuel pods on the helicopter had sheared off in the crash and was leaking JP-8 fuel. Beasley said the tank was about eight to 10 feet away from the wreckage.
"One was split and one was barely leaking," Beasley said.
The Clean Islands Council is a nonprofit organization that deals with oil spill response and is helping with the fuel recovery.
The fuel spill was “actually not too bad,” Beasley said. “This stuff is special military fuel. It will evaporate readily.” Beasley called the risk to the environment “pretty minimal.”
The Sea Stallion had 1,300 gallons of JP-8 fuel on board in internal tanks and the two external tanks — short of its 1,700-gallon maximum, said Marine Capt. Derrick George, the environmental officer for Kaneohe Bay.
The Marines said all 680 gallons may have leaked from the ruptured tank. A total of 482 gallons had been removed from the other external tank, and a determination still was being made on what was recovered from the internal tanks, which were not punctured, George said.
“Our major focus now is to make sure the fuel is removed from the bay,” he said.
Antonio said, “It’s a fuel that’s very volatile, so in sun and water it’s going to dissipate very quickly.”
He said the CH-53D crews fly three to five days a week on the training missions.
The crew was on a route over water to what’s known as a tactical flight training area, and that route passes over the Kaneohe Bay sandbar, Antonio said.
“All departures and arrivals are trying to mitigate as much as possible traveling over populated areas,” he said.
The Marine Corps said an orange fuel containment boom was placed around the site at first light yesterday. A white absorbent material 100 feet long and 22 inches wide also was placed around the leaking fuel tank, the Clean Islands Council said. The spray-blown polyvinylchloride is like a plastic blanket that draws in the oil.
The Naval Safety Center sent an expert to advise as an “aviation mishap board” was being organized to investigate the cause of the crash. A command investigation by Marine Air Group 24 also is expected.
The Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 was developing a salvage plan.
Antonio said following the wreckage inspection, “if we can, we’ll get a crane out there, lift it up on a barge and bring it back here (to the Marine Corps base).”
If a barge can’t get close enough, another option is to airlift the wreckage out using another helicopter, but “that can be difficult,” depending on the tide and how much water is in the aircraft, he said.
Antonio said the CH-53Ds had not been grounded as of yesterday, but he deferred comment to the commander of MAG-24, who was expected back last night.
One of the Hawaii-based choppers crashed on Aug 13, 2004, on the grounds of Okinawa International University in Japan. The helicopter maintenance crew’s lack of sleep was cited in the investigation as possibly contributing to the failure to reinstall a cotter pin that led to the destruction of the $14.5 million aircraft, the Stars and Stripes newspaper had reported.
Crew members sustained injuries, but there were no civilian injuries in the crash.
Antonio said yesterday that the CH-53Ds are “very safe,” citing the recent seven-month deployment.
Hawaii Marines as far back as 2003 had to be creative in maintaining the choppers, making several trips a year to a helicopter boneyard outside Tucson, Ariz., to retrieve hard-to-get parts such as engine cowlings.
The Marine Corps plans to replace one of the CH-53D squadrons at Kaneohe Bay with newer CH-53E Super Stallions and the two other squadrons with MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Marine Corps asked Kaneohe Bay residents finding debris to call Marine Corps police at 257-2123 to arrange delivery or pickup of the items. Officials said these items are crucial for the aviation mishap investigation.
The Coast Guard set up a safety zone and was not allowing boaters to enter an area about 500 yards around the crash scene. A Coast Guard boat was patrolling around the downed copter.
Star-Advertiser reporters William Cole, Gregg K. Kakesako, Leila Fujimori and Rob Shikina contributed to this report.