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California and the West

Marine Copter Crashes in Ocean

Search: Area off Oceanside is combed for crew of four. Aircraft similar to the one they were in are grounded for inspection.

September 18, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — As rescue crews searched for the four-member crew aboard a Marine Corps helicopter that crashed in the ocean 12 miles from Oceanside, the service Thursday ordered all similar helicopters grounded for inspection.

A UH-1 Huey helicopter on night maneuvers crashed Wednesday at 8:20 p.m. while practicing takeoffs and landings on the Navy ship Rushmore. The four crew members were from the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267 at nearby Camp Pendleton.

Fifty Huey helicopters were grounded at Camp Pendleton, Miramar Marine Air Station and Tustin Marine Air Station.

Nearly 24 hours after the crash, only a few pieces of the helicopter had been recovered, Camp Pendleton spokeswoman Lt. Nancy Olson said. No bodies had been found.

The crew members were identified late Thursday as Capt. Barry Fleming, 28, the pilot; Capt. Robert Falkenbach, 27, also a pilot; Staff Sgt. Steven King, 28, a mechanic; and Sgt. Barry Coleman, 28, crew chief. Search efforts were halted at 7:30 p.m. because of darkness.

Marine Corps officials conceded that the chances of finding the men alive were decreasing.

"Our first priority is finding our missing Marines," said Lt. David Nevers. "With each hour the hopes diminish somewhat, but we continue to . . . to pray."

The Huey is a dual-engine helicopter, 57 feet long and with a 47-foot rotor, that gained fame in Vietnam as an all-purpose craft with great versatility and durability.

In announcing the stand-down, the Marine Corps noted that before the crash, Huey helicopters attached to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing had accumulated 21,431 flight hours without a major mishap. Earlier this year, however, the Army grounded its single-engine Hueys until a gearbox problem was corrected.

The crash occurred during routine training in calm seas. The Rushmore's primary duty is to bring Marines and their equipment ashore in support of the amphibious assaults that are the Marine Corps' specialty.

The crash came two weeks after 12 Air Force personnel were killed in the collision of two Pave Hawk helicopters in a mountainous area 55 miles north of Las Vegas.

In March, a Navy anti-submarine helicopter from North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado crashed in the mountains north of San Bernardino, killing five crew members.

In May 1997, four Marines from an El Toro squadron were killed when their CH-46 Sea Stallion crashed about six miles off Oceanside. Using a deep submergence vessel, the Navy found the wreckage in about 2,100 feet of water.

In 1996, President Clinton ordered a "top to bottom" review of military aviation after a Marine Corps Sea Knight rolled over and burned in Orlando, Fla. The helicopter had been carrying reporters covering Clinton's trip to Florida; no one was injured in the incident, but the helicopter was destroyed.

The Marine Corps' decision to base its helicopter fleet at Miramar Marine Air Station in the heart of suburban San Diego was a politically volatile one. Residents complained bitterly about the noise and the prospect of crashes, although the Marine Corps insisted that its helicopters were safe.

All the crew members aboard the helicopter that crashed Wednesday night were wearing life vests and had undergone extensive training in survival techniques, a Marine Corps spokesman said. None was wearing night vision goggles, which have been linked to other military crashes.

Huey helicopters are known to flip over when they crash, which can trap crew members inside.

The search was conducted by the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.

"Our Marines know the inherent risk in the job we're required to do," Nevers said. "Every pilot knows there is a risk every time they go up."

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