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Marines plan to cut up downed helicopter and remove the parts

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The Marines plan to remove a downed CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter from Kaneohe Bay’s sandbar by cutting it up and lifting it using another helicopter from the same unit, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, known as the “Red Lions.”

Cpl. Jonathan Faircloth, a 22-year-old aerial gunner, died after the big helicopter crashed at 7:20 p.m. last Tuesday while the pilots were doing routine night-vision goggle training and experienced a flight problem.

A private memorial for Faircloth will be held tomorrow afternoon on base. Injured in the crash were pilot Maj. Clinton J. Collins, co-pilot Capt. Kevin F. Hayles, and crew chief Cpl. Ronnie E. Brandafino.

One of the injured Marines has left the hospital, but two remain at Queen’s Medical Center where they are recovering from their injuries, the Marines said. A release did not specify which Marine was released.

As part of their salvage operations, Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One continue to remove smaller pieces of the Sea Stallion and plan to cut the remainder of the helicopter into two or three large sections that will be lifted from the water later this week, the Marines said today.

The Navy divers, Coast Guard and Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s Waterfront Operations and aircraft rescue and firefighting personnel will use an assortment of equipment, to include oil-containment buoys for fluids and steel netting for large debris, to ensure there is no damage to the environment, officials said.

 Salvage and extraction operations are being monitored by Marine Corps environmental compliance and protection department personnel, as well as the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The downed aircraft will be taken to Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, where an investigation into the cause of the incident continues. The Corps said anyone who believes they have discovered a piece of aircraft debris should call base Military Police at 257-2123 for pickup.

Officials said base personnel, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Department of Land and Natural Resources will conduct a post-environmental assessment after the aircraft is removed to determine what actions may be necessary to restore the natural habitat to its original condition.

The 88-foot-long, 21-ton helicopter split open and came to rest on its side in shallow water. The four-member crew had made it about two miles from base at an altitude of about 300 feet when they experienced a flight problem and made a “hard landing” on the sandbar, officials said.

Lt. Col. Michael Antonio, the Kaneohe Bay base’s deputy commander, said last week that if possible, a barge with a crane would be moved near the sandbar to recover the wreckage. 

If a barge couldn’t get close enough, an alternative option was 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.

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