SAN DIEGO — In the worst naval air crash in decades, 27 crew members are believed to have died in the midair collision of two Navy P-3 Orion anti-submarine planes during a training mission Thursday off the San Diego coast.
The crash occurred 60 miles southwest of San Diego at 2:30 a.m. as a storm pounded the area, Navy officials said. Search-and-rescue workers discovered wreckage from the downed planes but as of late Thursday they had not found any bodies in the heavy seas. The crewmen are listed as missing, but Navy officials said they had little hope that any survived.
The collision--believed to be the first of its kind involving the all-weather Orion--occurred as one plane flew to relieve the other, which had been airborne for seven hours. Fourteen crew members were aboard one Orion; 13 were on the other.
The two aircraft were assigned to Patrol Squadron 50, based at Moffett Naval Air Station in Mountain View, where the military community south of San Francisco was stunned by the news of the collision.
"We're a small community," said Lt. Cmdr. Frank Pearson, assistant chief of staff for the P-3 patrol squadrons at Moffett, which is almost three flight hours away from the crash site. "When something like this happens, it affects us all."
The P-3 Orion is a sturdy turboprop that was used in the Persian Gulf to search for mines and also is used to fly into hurricanes to monitor their strength. The Orions that collided were conducting a routine anti-submarine warfare training exercise.
A Navy helicopter crew flying six miles away and sailors aboard the destroyer Merrill nine miles away reported a ball of fire and loud explosion about 2:30 a.m., said Senior Chief Petty Officer Bob Howard, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet's Naval Air Force.
The planes' altitudes have not been determined, but the aircraft can fly as low as 500 feet over the water, Howard said.
Investigators also have not determined what role the stormy weather might have played in the crash. About two hours after the incident, the National Weather Service reported a funnel cloud off the coast near Ocean Beach, about 60 miles from the accident.
"Obviously, weather is being considered--it's always a factor," Howard said.
Several pilots, however, said the P-3 is capable of handling considerable turbulence.
"It's a hard, rough ride but it's got a lot of power and it's amazing how much the aircraft can take. . . . Multiply the turbulence (sustainable) on any kind of airline flight by 10--they're amazing," said Lowell Genzlinger, a National Center for Atmospheric Research pilot who has flown the Orion into storms for the past 12 years. "But no airplane is going to handle a midair collision--that's like running into a brick wall."
At the time of the crash, visibility was 3 to 7 miles and waves were 4 to 5 feet. Heavy rains were falling from thick cloud cover.
"Certainly weather conditions, while not optimal, were within the operating range and capability of the P-3," said Howard.
The two aircraft, which had been in radio contact with the battle groups, were not using air-to-air radar but relying on their assigned altitude, an official said.
One expert familiar with the aircraft, who asked not to be named, said the crash was more likely to be a result of the pilots' inability to see.
"You can assume any time there's a midair collision--whether military or civilian--it results from the inability of one or both pilots to see. The primary means that pilots have to avoid collision is the human eyeball--if they are flying at night and in bad weather, the ability of the pilots to see each other is more difficult," he said.
Names of the missing crewmen had not been released Thursday as Navy officials began contacting next of kin.
About five ships combed the sea in search of bodies as aircraft flew overhead. It has not yet been determined how long the search will continue, Howard said. But rescue efforts began almost immediately after the crash, when the crew of a nearby Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter saw the fireball, flew closer and identified floating debris from the planes.
About 20 minutes after the incident, the Merrill--also participating in the training exercise--arrived at the crash site to help search for survivors. But none had been found by Thursday evening.
The Lockheed-manufactured P-3 Orion, named after the Greek god of the hunt, is a fixed-wing plane that typically carries a crew of about a dozen.
In Navy service for 29 years, the plane has a good safety record, officials said. Since the Navy began using the P-3 three decades ago, there have been 38 crashes in more than 6 million flight hours, a rate that compares favorably with other military aircraft, officials said.
The last P-3 accident occurred Sept. 25, 1990, at Crowes Field, part of Moffett Field, when a plane landed hard and was engulfed in flames. Three were injured in that accident. In 1983, a P-3 crashed into a mountain in Hawaii killing 14.