Before the Obama family's annual two-week vacation last December in Kailua, Hawaii, the Secret Service put in place a series of standard security measures, including a temporary regional flight restriction affecting Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, stationed less than five miles away at Kaneohe Bay.
But unlike past years, this year found HMH-463 in crisis.
The unit, the only squadron of CH-53E Super Stallion choppers based in Hawaii, was in a desperate struggle to claw back readiness after failing a maintenance inspection in September and contending with dwindling numbers of flight-worthy aircraft for pilots and aircrew to rack up badly needed flight hours.
A weapons and tactics instructor assigned to the squadron tried to negotiate with the Secret Service, asking for permission to conduct functional check flights, brief flights needed to conduct routine maintenance. The request, he said, was denied.
Ten days after the Obamas departed Hawaii on Jan. 4 and the temporary flight restriction, known in military parlance as TRF, was lifted, two Super Stallions from HMH-463 collided during a routine night flight off the coast of Oahu, creating a fireball in the sky and killing all 12 Marines aboard the aircraft on impact. The tragic crash represented the greatest loss of Marines in an aviation mishap since Jan. 26, 2005, when a Super Stallion carrying 31 troops crashed during a sandstorm in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of all 31 aboard.
A command investigation into the crash released this week determined that the cause of the crash was pilot error, with a variety of factors contributing to depleted proficiency and crew exhaustion, resulting in key mistakes with horrific consequences.
But the question lingers: Did the president's visit contribute to the sequence of events that left the Marines unprepared to fly? At least two Marines interviewed by investigators say that it did because the restriction limited the ability of crews to get much-needed training time on a dwindling number of aircraft available, making them less ready for missions.
The Secret Service is looking into whether the Marines did in fact request an exception and, if so, why that request was denied.
Marine officials acknowledged that the flight restriction may have had a detrimental impact on unit readiness just ahead of the crash, but made clear they do not believe it was directly to blame for the tragedy.
"The temporary flight restriction was not a direct cause of this mishap," Maj. Christian Devine, a Marine Corps spokesman, told Military.com.
In an interview with investigators, the weapons and tactics instructor, whose name is redacted, said the restriction did indeed have a negative effect on the squadron.
"I tried to explain to the Secret Service that functional flight checks [quick maintenance flights] were necessary for all routine maintenance. They refused to allow any flights," the instructor testified, according to documents reviewed by Military.com. "This had a very real impact on HMH-463's ability to improve [ready basic aircraft] numbers." Ready basic aircraft, or RBA, refers to the number of planes a squadron has ready and available for missions.
The observation is corroborated by another, unnamed squadron crew member who had been scheduled to fly on the night of the tragedy, but had opted to give up the precious opportunity for flight hours so that another member of the unit could bring his own flight hours up.
"Our flight hours as a unit took a hit during the [temporary flight restriction] period that was created as a result of the President's vacation in Kailua," the Marine told investigators. "We considered other options to get out of the TFR during that time period, like moving the birds to Kona or Honolulu, but ultimately we left the birds at [Marine Corps Base Hawaii]. We decided to use that time period to rest, refit, and get our RBA above 50 percent."
Ultimately, the squadron did send two aircraft to the island of Kauai to the west to get some limited training in while the Obamas remained in town. But RBA, a measure of how many aircraft were available for flight and training operations, would remain flat across the month of December, and at one point it would dip to zero.
In response to a Military.com query to the White House, a source familiar with operations said the Secret Service had been tasked with looking into the Marines’ claim that the requested exception for functional check flights was denied. Under standard Secret Service procedure, community impact assessments are made each time a temporary flight restriction is imposed. Exceptions are common, the source said.
Devine, the Marine Corps spokesman, would not speculate on whether Secret Service restrictions had indirectly contributed to the tragic crash.
"A thorough and detailed command investigation into the circumstances surrounding this mishap identified numerous factors, including the temporary flight restriction, which collectively may have had adverse impacts on unit readiness and training," he said.
Devine said the annual, pre-planned restriction on flights was consistent with standard Secret Service operating procedures, and units typically mitigate the impact of the restrictions by using alternative training routes or venues.
A Unit in Crisis
The mishap, the investigation shows, had myriad indirect causes. The entire Marine Corps CH-53E fleet was in the midst of reset as wear and tear left few aircraft available to fly and flight hours in decline, but HMH-463, also known as Pegasus, was worse than most.
The number of ready basic aircraft held at two or fewer for much of 2015, far below the standard of 50 percent, or six aircraft. Morale suffered and fatigue grew as squadron members saw "no end in sight" to a constant struggle to rebuild unit readiness.
After the unit failed a high-stakes maintenance inspection in September, the unit resorted to extreme measures to meet goals. A senior officer, whose name is redacted, directed the unit to begin a grueling "12 hours on, 12 hours off" work schedule if the unit could not report at least six ready basic aircraft before Thanksgiving. The deadline came without meeting the goal, and the unit began its exhausting work schedule.
Meanwhile, pilots were frustrated at the lack of adequate training time. In December, co-pilots complained they were lucky to log 10 of the 16 flight hours they were supposed to accrue each month and claimed they felt left behind as the unit sought to prioritize time for weapons and tactics instructors and night system instructors, according to the investigation.
"During the latter half of 2015, monthly and weekly flight training plans were created and approved with the knowledge that the plans were highly unlikely to be executed as planned due to an inadequate number of RBA," the investigation states. "Because these 'unrealistic' schedules often led to cancelled flights, HMH-463 aviators considered the flight scheduled to be a 'running joke.' "
By January, the end of the first fiscal quarter of the year, the squadron was already 600 flight hours behind the number that had been scheduled, according to the investigation.
Three days before the tragic Jan. 14 collision, the commander of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, then-Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, relieved HMH-463 commander Lt. Col. Edward Pavelka of his post, citing a loss of confidence in his abilities stemming from inadequate improvement in aircraft readiness rates between the failed September inspection and the first days of the new year.
The evening of the ill-fated training flight started out as an ordinary training mission. The flight itself was identified as low-risk, aircrew fatigue was ranked low, and all pilots and co-pilots were deemed current on their instruments.
But the officer assigned to brief the flight to the pilots seemed distracted, and there were several errors in the "smartpack" of information about the flight. The names of two landing zones and two waypoints were switched, investigators found, and alternate landing zones were not clearly identified.
The investigation also shows that the unit’s aviation safety officer had engaged in a heated discussion with another squadron officer the day before the planned flight, arguing that the precaution of flying with weapons and tactics instructors in each aircraft was not enough to offset the lack of night flight training hours accrued by the pilots.
And just before the flight, the crew had to make a last-minute aircraft switch when one of the two Super Stallions set to go on the training mission failed a "ground turn" evaluation of recent maintenance.
Then, little of note is reported until the explosion lit up the sky.
Nine months after the tragedy, questions remain about what led to the in-flight miscalculations that resulted in the deadly collision. Officially, the investigation found that low-light conditions made it difficult for the choppers to keep adequate separation from each other in the air. And documents make clear that this was a unit with systemic problems, overworked and reeling from the recent loss of its commander.
But there is evidence that the Secret Service-imposed flight restrictions during those crucial weeks in December, just before the crash, made the work of readiness recovery even more difficult.
"Without the ability to perform [functional check flights], HMH-463 was challenged to improve RBA numbers during the [temporary flight restriction]," the investigation states.
In late December, the unit briefly fell to zero ready basic aircraft, to the consternation of officials at 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
"Like many, [Gen. Sanborn] is not happy with [the squadron's] lack of movement toward RBA aircraft," an unnamed Marine aviation official wrote in a Dec. 28 email reviewed by Military.com.
Following the crash, however, the squadron has been able to rebuild readiness rates. In a brief interview Wednesday, Marine Corps Deputy Commandant of Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said flight hours have more than doubled for squadron members since the beginning of the year, though he still wants to see the number increase.
"Even though the whole '53 fleet was suffering, [HMH-463 was] suffering more than others," Davis said. "There shouldn't have been a mishap."