Report: Pilot error blamed in Marine copter crash that killed 12 off Oahu | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Top News

Report: Pilot error blamed in Marine copter crash that killed 12 off Oahu

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / JAN. 2016

    Family and friends pay respect at a memorial service held for the 12 marines who died in a helicopter crash off the North Shore.

Twelve Hawaii Marines were killed on Jan. 14 when two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters collided off Oahu as one chopper raced at night to catch up and the first helicopter turned in its path, according to the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

The impact resulted in an explosion that instantaneously killed all aboard, the university program said. Six Marines were in each aircraft during the night training.

According to the program’s report, Pegasus 32 outpaced the other helicopter, Pegasus 31, which accelerated just as the lead aircraft was making a sharp left turn, resulting in the collision at 1,500 feet elevation off Oahu’s North Shore.

The Kaneohe Bay pilots had fallen behind on flying hours and two of them were not adequately proficient in the use of night vision goggles, the Investigative Reporting Program said.

The California program worked with families of the fallen Marines and reported the findings on Huffington Post and Civil Beat today. The Marine Corps is expected to formally release its investigation Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Curtis L. Hill, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said in an email today, that the Marines’ “investigation found the primary cause of this mishap to be pilot error.”

The inquiry “determined that the aircraft failed to maintain adequate distance during the flight” and they collided, Hill said. “Investigators believe that the low light conditions made it difficult for the aircrew to recognize the rapid decrease in separation between the aircraft which led to the collision.”

The evidence indicated both aircraft were mechanically sound.

“Investigators found the main contributing factors were low aircraft readiness leading to inadequate pilot proficiency, human factors, and the squadron’s lack of focus on basic aviation practices,” Hill also said.

Killed in the crash were:

» Maj. Shawn M. Campbell, 41, pilot.

» Sgt. William J. Turner, 25, crew chief.

» Capt. Kevin T. Roche, 30, pilot.

» Capt. Brian T. Kennedy, 31, pilot.

» Sgt. Jeffrey A. Sempler, 22, crew chief.

» Sgt. Adam C. Schoeller, 25, crew chief.

» Sgt. Dillon J. Semolina, 24, crew chief.

» Cpl. Thomas J. Jardas, 22, crew chief.

» Cpl. Christopher J. Orlando, 23, crew chief.

» Capt. Steven R. Torbert, 29, pilot.

» Cpl. Matthew R. Drown, 23, crew chief.

» Lance Cpl. Ty L. Hart, 21, crew chief.

“This loss of life was tragic and is felt deeply in the Marine Corps community,” Hill said. “Our thoughts go out to the families of all those affected by this incident.”

After the crash, the Marine Corps said it grounded its CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from training in Hawaii for 19 days and pulled them from an Australia deployment.

The collision in a fireball 2 miles off the coast came amid revelations that Marine Corps aviation — including fixed-wing F/A-18 Hornets as well as rotary aircraft — had been hamstrung by budget cuts leading to parts shortages and maintenance backlogs.

Lisa and Mike De La Cruz, the parents of one of the lost Marines, Sgt. Dillon Semolina, previously told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the two choppers shouldn’t have been flying that night because the parts issue was so bad.

Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, which had 12 choppers before the crash, “stopped all flight operations for 12 days and then only conducted functional check-flights required in support of maintenance-related operations,” Capt. Cassandra Gesecki, then a spokeswoman for the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan, said in April. “There were no training or operational support flights flown for a total of 19 days.”

Three days before the crash, Lt. Col. Edward Pavelka, commander of HMH-463, was relieved of command. Higher command had “lost confidence in his ability to continue to lead the squadron,” the Marine Corps said without explaining what Pavelka had done.

An inquiry made by Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s office said Pavelka was removed because the squadron had low unit morale and low readiness.

Mike De La Cruz previously said he was told Pavelka was flying the helicopters minimally because of safety concerns.

By August, the Marine Corps had begun a full refurbishment of its CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, “an effort aimed at significantly increasing the number of operationally fit aircraft and addressing systemic issues, which in recent years drove the platform’s readiness level to unsustainable depths,” Naval Air Systems Command said at the time.

Officials found the material condition of the CH-53 helicopters degraded due to age and hard use in war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Comments (14)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Leave a Reply

  • The commanding officer(s) behind the scene who gave the order to fly in the stormy weather are to blame. Blaming the pilot and using them as a scapegoats is a cowardly thing to do. While the commanding officers get to eat steak and lobsters every night, sleep in their ivory tower homes with there wives, and walk around proud as a peacock; don’t give a rat ass about the dead.

    • Ever heard this one? Of course you have.

      “For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
      For want of a shoe the horse was lost…
      For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.”

      It was like that, but in reverse: Pentagon budget cuts included cuts to parts acquisition and maintenance on the CH-53E. Those reductions, combined with the age and condition of these choppers, meant more hangar time. That in turn meant less hands-on training time, especially night-goggle missions. Thus, the pilots had less than optimal proficiency in those conditions — which the investigators rightly deem the proximate cause.

      Is the chain of command complicit in this? Sure, from top to bottom. But I can’t find any weather records showing any specific “stormy weather” in that area. So rather than specifically complicit in this event, they have to bear their share of negligence by allowing maintenance and training to slip below allowable standards. But they aren’t as complicit as those who gave us a budget that scrimped on parts, maintenance and training — while still bloated with porkbarrel appropriations.

      Got ‘um? Good. Go treat yourself to an L&L teri steak and shrimp combo bento.

    • google – Ranting as usual, nothing to back up your claims, mark of a rookie poster.

      Military flight missions go through a thorough planning and review process before they are launched. During the mission pilots have the authority to cancel when deteriorating weather conditions make it unsafe. Training in less than perfect weather is standard for all branches of the military as it is for civilian aviation.

      Pity you willfully never met the qualifications to serve.

    • It’s possible the pilots did mess up, it happens sometimes. Pretty much ANY job can point to someone higher up and say they contributed, but that doesn’t mean the ones in lower positions take no responsibility. A failing school can say the Department of Education and poor training by the College of Education are to blame, but the principal and teachers still share responsibility. If the pilot did mess up, it’s not using them as a “scapegoat.” I really don’t get where you’re coming from.

  • “Investigators found the main contributing factors were low aircraft readiness leading to inadequate pilot proficiency, human factors, and the squadron’s lack of focus on basic aviation practices.” Well, of course they were not focused on basic aviation practices. They were too busy focusing on Obama’s social experiments of putting women in foxholes and reconfiguring latrines to accommodate transgenders.

    • It’s nothing short of purely pusillanimous that Somen004 or 5 on an exceptional night would do this. Would hijack this article about a tragedy that killed 12 brave Marines — and try to turn it into a soapbox for his puny, petty political ho’omalimali.

      Watch it if you’re ever up close to Drumpf. He’s already said on tape that he likes to grab pusillanimouses like you.

  • This is not an official report. Leave it to the Advertiser to NOT do any journalistic due diligence. What is Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley? Go to their website. No data, it is self licking ice cream cone between Civil Beat and IRP @ Berkley. Where is the genus of the report? What are these two reporters basing their investigative data on? I will wait for the official report which may or may not state pilot error.

Scroll Up