Fatal Helo Crash Blamed on Pilot Error

HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Pilot error led to a Pave Hawk helicopter crash last year on Okinawa that killed a crew member and stoked Japanese concerns over military aircraft safety, according to investigative findings released Tuesday by the Air Force on two recent air mishaps.

A May F-15C fighter jet crash at sea that caused only minor injuries was attributed to mechanical failure.

The HH-60 crashed and burned Aug. 5 in a jungle training area after the pilot maneuvered at low altitude to avoid what he mistakenly perceived as a potential mid-air collision with another helicopter, an accident review board determined. The 33rd Rescue Squadron Pave Hawk was training with pararescuemen for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Air Force Tech Sgt. Mark Smith, a decorated flight engineer, died in the crash, and Japan’s Ministry of Defense requested a temporary grounding of all Okinawa-based Pave Hawks, the Air Force variant of the Black Hawk. The spectacular crash came as Okinawans – already skittish from a U.S. military helicopter crash at an island university in 2004 – were protesting the arrival of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Col. Jeffrey Ullmann, commander of the 18th Mission Support Group at Kadena, said the HH-60 pilot misjudged the situation. There were no mechanical malfunctions.

“There actually wasn’t any danger” of collision, Ullmann said during a presentation of the accident investigation board findings. “But the pilot perceived there was danger and took control of the aircraft.”

The HH-60 and another squadron helicopter had dropped pararescuemen on a simulated crash scene in the U.S. military’s Central Training Area, a swath of jungle near Camp Hansen, and were flying low in a circle-8 pattern, Ullmann said.

During the maneuver, the two aircraft began to drift west, and the pilot of the downed Pave Hawk attempted to correct by turning the aircraft to the right.

The pilot and crew had lost awareness of the exact location of the trailing Pave Hawk while turning. When the pilot saw the other helicopter, he misjudged the distance, took over the flight controls and plunged the HH-60 down into the dense jungle.

The aircraft was destroyed, costing the Air Force $38 million, the Kadena public affairs office confirmed.

Ullmann said the Air Force moved to avoid similar crashes by performing triple inspections of its Pave Hawks at Kadena immediately after the incident and re-emphasizing situational awareness for flight crews during training and pre-flight briefings.

The crew of the downed HH-60 did not fly again for two to four months after the crash, he said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force also released investigative findings on an F-15C that fell into the ocean east of Okinawa on May 13 after the pilot ejected.

The aircraft was part of a two-ship formation and was training aggressively with another F-15 in the Hotel-Hotel military training area when its flight controls stopped working, warning indicators lighted up and the jet went into an uncontrollable spiral, Ullmann said.

The incident was caused by a malfunction of a high-intensity tactical training assistance mechanism called the pitch-roll channel assembly. The pilot, who was cleared of causing the crash, had just 20 seconds to review the mechanical problem before the aircraft reached the lowest possible altitude for an ejection and he could not zero in on the failing mechanism, Ullmann said.

Kadena pilots are now being trained to turn the pitch-roll channel assembly off when faced with the same situation, which will allow the aircraft to continue flying and land properly, he said.

The aircraft, valued at about $32 million, was a total loss.

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