Army families in North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee on Monday received the news they had been dreading: The search for the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter off Kaena Point on Oahu had ended with no recoveries.
Now the nearly weeklong search-and-rescue mission at sea that started on the same night as the Aug. 15 crash has transitioned to salvage and recovery. The missing soldiers have been reclassified to “duty status — whereabouts unknown,” a temporary designation short of a formal death declaration.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian M. Woeber, 41, of Decatur, Ala., a married father of three, was an instructor pilot at Wheeler Army Airfield who had served in a similar role at Fort Rucker, Ala., and in Sinai, Egypt.
Staff Sgt. Abigail R. Milam, 33, of Jenkins, Ky., said on her Facebook page that she was a UH-60 Black Hawk repairer with the Army and lived in Waipahu. She expressed how happy she was to be married to another soldier, Tiffany Marie Milam.
“May my heart be kind, my mind fierce and my spirit brave,” Abigail Milam included along with her Facebook profile picture.
1st Lt. Kathryn M. Bailey, 26, of Hope Mills, N.C., was a Black Hawk pilot who had arrived at Wheeler earlier this year from Fort Rucker and was featured in a base newspaper story about making a “permanent change of station” move.
Two other Wheeler soldiers were identified Monday by the Army as being part of the crew: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stephen T. Cantrell, 32, of Wichita Falls, Texas; and Sgt. Michael L. Nelson, 30, of Antioch, Tenn.
“The active search and rescue was suspended only after a very careful consideration of all the available information,” Maj. Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, said at a news conference Monday. “It was a difficult decision for all of us, and for the families most of all. I know that all the responders helping in this rescue effort join me and the rest of this division in offering the families of those missing soldiers our deepest condolences and sympathies.”
The 14th Coast Guard District sent liaisons with each of the notification teams “so that any technical questions could be answered on the spot (for) the families,” Cavoli said. He adding that they have “been kept informed this whole period” with regular updates.
Two Wheeler Black Hawks with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, were on a routine night- training flight between Kaena Point and Dillingham Airfield. About 30 minutes into the training, the lead helicopter lost radio and visual contact with the other.
The aircraft was reported missing at about 9:30 p.m. some 2.5 miles west of Kaena Point.
The Coast Guard issued an urgent marine information broadcast and deployed assets after it received a call from Wheeler of the missing helicopter at 10:08 p.m. The Coast Guard and Army air crews spotted a debris field near Kaena Point shortly before 11:30 that night.
Lt. Col. Curt Kellogg, a 25th Division spokesman, said Monday that when Black Hawks fly in formation, the intent is to be in regular contact.
“But at some point in time, in a fairly routine attempt to have visual contact and radio contact, the time between when they had last (had that contact) and were supposed to have that again, did not happen,” Kellogg said.
The lead helicopter turned around immediately and began a search, Cavoli said.
“The pilot in command of the helicopter that remained, after conducting an immediate search, knew that he didn’t have all of the things on board to launch a professional search, and the key was going to be to get the U.S. Coast Guard out right away,” Cavoli said.
No mayday call was made. A locator beacon was on board that might have survived, depending on the impact, but Kellogg said he was not aware of any signal being picked up.
Lt. Scott Carr, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said Monday that the best opportunity to find survivors from the crash was in the first 24 hours.
Carr said an exhaustive search was made for the missing aviators.
“Our Coast Guard crews and Army helicopter crews and Navy helicopter crews and fixed-wing assets have flown around the clock since Tuesday,” Carr said. “Coast Guard crews have been on the water around the clock since Tuesday. Fire Department assets, Ocean Safety assets have worked sunup to sundown every day. This has been a massive joint effort, and we have saturated the area.”
The search involved an area of about 96,110 square statute miles, with more than 132 separate searches, the Coast Guard said. The search area began off Kaena Point but extended west beyond Kauai and Niihau.
Four crew member helmets and pieces of wreckage including “large panels” have been retrieved on the surface, officials said.
Two investigations are underway. The Army’s Combat Readiness Center is investigating for the purposes of future safety as part of a report that won’t be released to the public. A separate command investigation within the 25th Division also has been mounted that will rely in part on the salvage and recovery to help determine what went wrong.
Kellogg said the goal is to recover the helicopter and crew.
After two Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters collided off the North Shore on Jan. 14, 2016, killing all 12 aboard, the Navy and Marines used remotely operated vehicles to recover pieces of the aircraft and human remains from a depth of 300 to 340 feet. Remains of nine of the 12 Marines were positively identified for burial by their families. It was determined the wreckage depth exceeded safe manned-diving limits.
The Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam was out Monday about a mile offshore northwest of Kaena Point with a remotely operated vehicle in waters at least 150 feet deep looking for helicopter wreckage and mapping the bottom topography with sonar, officials said.
Shifting waters and swift currents spread debris from 2 miles offshore the night of the crash to an expanded search area of at least 50 miles on Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
The ocean floor drops quickly off Oahu and varies throughout the search area. It is more than 1,000 feet deep at the center of a safety zone established by the Coast Guard for the search, the AP said.
“Even as we grieve, we have a mission to do,” Cavoli said Monday. “The next phase is focused on recovery operations. We will work with our Navy and our Army partners to do everything possible to understand the circumstances of this terrible situation and to try to bring our soldiers home to their families.”