CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — As investigators began searching for reasons why two military helicopters collided during maneuvers, a Defense Department official on Saturday defended the safety of the equipment involved, which included one of the oldest type of aircraft in military service.
"These are good aircraft," said Deputy Secretary of Defense John White, who toured the crash site Saturday with senior officials. "Their safety record is very good."
White did not rule out the possibility, however, that the crash--the latest in a series of accidents involving military aircraft--may result in changes in the way training maneuvers are carried out. "It's too early to determine whether there should be changes in training," he said.
The collision occurred during nighttime maneuvers early Friday morning as a CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter and an AH-1 Cobra assault craft were participating in a mock amphibious landing. Fourteen people aboard the helicopters were killed, but the pilot and co-pilot of the Sea Knight craft survived.
Officials have talked with the co-pilot of the transport craft, 1st Lt. Walter W. Kulakowski of Alachua, Fla., who is listed in stable condition at the Camp Lejeune Naval Base hospital. But Lt. Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, the commander at Camp Lejeune, said Kulakowski, 33, did not shed light on how the accident occurred.
"He was not asked any questions about the mishap itself," Wilhelm said.
The other survivor, Maj. Charles A. Johnson Jr., 33, of Fairfax, Va., was in critical condition Saturday at a hospital in Greenville, N.C.
The Cobra was assigned to fly ahead of the Sea Knight and secure a landing zone for the troop carrier. The Cobra then was to swing around as the Sea Knight approached the zone, officials said.
The CH-46 was introduced 31 years ago. Much of its equipment is obsolete and many of its spare parts are no longer made. The Marine Corps has restricted both the aircraft's speed and the number of Marines that may be carried aboard and plans to replace the helicopter with the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor craft scheduled to come into the fleet in 2001.
White said the accident occurred at an altitude of 300 feet and that the pilots were wearing night-vision goggles, which can distort normal vision. He declined to speculate, however, on the role the goggles may have played in the accident.
"These people are fully qualified pilots," he said. "They wear night-vision goggles regularly."
The maneuvers were part of a U.S.-British exercise called Operation Purple Star, in which about 38,000 U.S. troops and 15,000 British troops acting as a coalition force "invade" a fictitious Third World country.
No British military personnel was involved in the mishap.
While air operations over the area were suspended just after the collision, the overall exercise is proceeding as scheduled.
The morale of the troops remained high after the accident, Wilhelm said. "They're honoring their fallen comrades and getting on with the mission," he said.
Friday's accident was the worst Marine Corps aviation disaster since a Sea Knight crashed at sea in 1989, killing 14 people.
The collision at Camp Lejeune marked the ninth time this year that Marine Corps aircraft have crashed and was the second fatal helicopter crash in two days. On Thursday, a CH-53 Super Stallion crashed during a training flight at Sikorsky Aircraft Co. in Stratford, Conn.
In March, the Corps temporarily grounded all nonessential flights to review its safety rules, but it has since resumed normal operations.
"We all would like to figure out a way to not have accidents," White said. "But, as of today, everything worked according to plan and we do not know what went wrong."
The aircraft were part of Medium Helicopter Squadron 266, stationed at nearby New River Marine Corps Air Station, and were operating from the Navy helicopter carrier Saipan, which was off the North Carolina coast.
Those killed in the collision were:
Maj. Michael D. Kuszewski, 42, of Westminster, Mass.; Capt. Scott T. Rice, 28, of Springfield, Mo.; 1st Lt. Joseph R. Fandrey, 25, of Norfolk, Mass.; 1st Lt. Arthur J. Schneider, 25, of Livingston, N.J.; Cpl. Brandon J. Tucker, 23, of Gaston, N.C.; Cpl. Brian L. Collins, 22, of Louisville, Ky.; Cpl. Britt T. Stacey, 26, of Roanoke, Va.; Cpl. Erik D. Kirkland, 29, of Lewisburg, Pa.; Lance Cpl. John P. Condello, 23, of Rochester, N.Y.; Lance Cpl. Jackie D. Chidester, 23, of Newark, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Jose L. Elizarraras, 20, of Orange, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Jorge E. Malagon; 19, of Melrose Park, Ill.; hospital nurse Brent W. Garmon, 20, of New Bern, N.C.; and Staff Sgt. Sean W. Carroll, 36, of Newburgh, N.Y.