The Marine Corps on Monday called off its search for four Marines lost at sea in the crash of a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter off the coast of East Africa. The Marines were identified only as a helicopter pilot stationed at Tustin and three infantrymen from Camp Pendleton.
Fourteen other Marines, 11 from Camp Pendleton and the three other flight crew members from the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, survived the crash of the transport helicopter.
The Sea Knight went down in 600 feet of water in the Indian Ocean, 60 nautical miles off Somalia, at 11:30 p.m. Saturday (9:30 a.m. Sunday, Somalian time) during a training mission. The helicopter was attached to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is made up of personnel from Camp Pendleton and the Tustin helicopter base.
The weekend crash was the most recent in a series of accidents involving the CH-46 that have killed more than 60 people since 1980. The latest fatalities raised renewed questions over whether the helicopters, which debuted in 1965 during the Vietnam War and are all more than 20 years old, have aged too much to continue providing the reliable service for which they were known.
Lt. Kevin Bentley, a Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Pendleton, said that the search for survivors was called off Monday and that the four Marines are presumed dead. The Marine Corps said it would release their names after all the families have been notified.
Later Monday, Gunnery Sgt. John Farrell at Camp Pendleton said that one of the presumed dead was one of the helicopter's two pilots and that the other three were infantrymen from Camp Pendleton. Farrell said the CH-46 was believed to have been flying off the amphibious assault ship Okinawa.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but Bentley said that fire was involved and that five of the survivors were flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany for treatment.
The expeditionary force was on a six-month deployment at sea. At the time of the crash, the amphibious task force to which the helicopter was attached was headed from the Gulf of Arabia to Mombasa, Kenya.
The Marine Corps has said it could keep its Sea Knights in service into the mid-1990s but wants to replace them with the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that lifts off like a helicopter but flies like a conventional airplane. But the new aircraft has been stalled in Congress, a victim of massive Pentagon budget cuts.
Supporting the production of the Osprey, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said he is concerned first with the safety of Marines who fly and ride in the aging CH-46s and then with Marine Corps mobility in time of war.
The CH-46, Dornan said, "is aging rapidly and desperately needs to be replaced."
Dornan said he is confident that Tustin Marines had properly maintained the CH-46 but that it is time to replace the fleet of CH-46s with the V-22.
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) said he, too, questions the continued use of the CH-46.
"I have been puzzled by the viability of that aircraft for some time," he said. "I am not an expert in military equipment . . . but its problems puzzle me. Personally, its safety record leaves something to be desired."
At least 65 Marines and other military personnel have lost their lives in CH-46 crashes since 1980.
In 1989, 14 Marines died when their CH-46 crashed south of Okinawa during a night training operation. The accident occurred shortly after the helicopter lifted off the deck of the amphibious transport dock Denver. Eight others aboard the aircraft were plucked from heavy seas by boats and other helicopters.
Fifteen died in 1985 when a Sea Knight carrying 19 Marines crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and sank shortly after it took off from the amphibious assault ship Guadalcanal.
Just last month a CH-46 crashed into choppy seas off Carpinteria after an engine caught fire. One Marine died.
Several of the recent crashes in San Diego and Orange counties occurred during night flights while the pilots were believed to be using night vision goggles.
In the mid-1980s, the Sea Knight was considered one of the safest helicopters flown by the Navy and Marines. Figures published in 1984 in Aviation Week and Space Technology said the aircraft experienced 1.97 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, a much lower accident rate than most other helicopters used by the Marine Corps.
The helicopters cost about $6.9 million each and can fly at a top speed of 150 m.p.h. They are designed to carry combat troops during land and amphibious assaults.
About 50 of the helicopters were deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm.
The first CH-46 was flown in 1962 and the first model left the production line two years later. From then until production stopped in 1971, 624 were built and were used extensively during the Vietnam War. Today, only 342 remain--81 in the Navy and 261 in the Marine Corps, including between 40 and 60 that are routinely based in Tustin.