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Study of Government Aircraft Ordered

Aviation: Military CH-46E accident spurs Clinton's call for a review of the safety and maintenance of planes and copters used to transport top officials.

September 07, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton ordered a thorough study of the safety and maintenance of aircraft used by top government officials after an accident destroyed a military helicopter Friday, less than a month after nine people died in the crash of a jet assigned to the White House.

Clinton ordered Defense Secretary William J. Perry to conduct a "top-to-bottom review" of all aspects of the operation of airplanes and helicopters used to transport executive branch officials and members of Congress.

"Within the last six months, a number of unfortunate accidents have occurred on [Defense Department] executive support aircraft," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said in a letter Friday to Perry.

"We are all concerned about the reliability" of Pentagon aircraft used to support the president and members of his Cabinet, the letter continued.

In his letter, Panetta demanded a review of "all operational aspects, including maintenance and training procedures of the . . . executive support air fleet to ensure that all necessary steps and safeguards are being taken to provide the safest possible transportation."

Panetta ordered Perry to report back within 30 days on specific steps to improve the safety and reliability of aircraft used by the president and other top government officials.

The president's action came after a Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter rolled over and burned at Orlando Executive Airport on Friday after a group of reporters covering the president's visit to Florida disembarked. None of the five Marines and Boeing employees aboard was seriously injured.

On Aug. 17, an Air Force C-130 carrying military personnel and a Secret Service agent crashed into a mountainside near Jackson, Wyo., where the president had been vacationing. All nine aboard were killed. The cause of the crash still has not been determined.

The worst recent incident involved the April 3 crash of an Air Force-modified Boeing 737 carrying Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 34 others. The plane plunged into a hillside in Croatia during a thunderstorm. It was carrying a trade delegation on a mission to the Balkans, and all aboard were killed.

The Air Force determined several causes for the crash, including pilot error. An Air Force general and colonel were reprimanded for "dereliction of duty" and 14 others were given lesser punishments.

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In Friday's incident, the helicopter was taxiing to a fuel truck when a rotor blade apparently struck a light pole, according to Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.

The helicopter was demolished, but crew members walked away with relatively minor cuts and bruises.

"I'm told they all escaped under their own power," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.

Also Friday, a second Marine CH-46 helicopter accompanying the president made a "precautionary landing" south of Orlando. The pilots took the step after a warning light illuminated, possibly indicating hydraulic system problems, an official said.

The two helicopters are assigned to Squadron HMX-1 in Quantico, Va. The squadron, established in 1947, has provided helicopters exclusively for White House use and support since 1976.

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