A Tailhook of a Different Kind...
9 December 1999
Off the coast of San Diego, California
"Leathernecks and Jarheads"
At its founding on November 10th, 1775, the United States Marine Corps was composed of infantry serving aboard naval vessels and was responsible for the security of the ship and her crew by conducting offensive and defensive combat during boarding actions, and defending the ship's officers from mutiny.
The Marines of yesterday probably won't recognize very much in today's modern Marines, other then their shared spirit and esprit de corps. From helicopters to amphibious tanks, today's Marines carry out a myriad of tasks unimagined two centuries ago.
Thus was the setting on December 9th, 1999, when a routine training exercise unlike any possible just 50 years earlier was underway.
The training for the day involved an Boeing Vertol CH-46D "Sea Knight", an all-weather, day-or-night assault transport helicopter use for moving troops and equipment. At the time, the twin-engined turbo powered helo, used exclusively by the Marine Corps, the Sea Knight had earned a reputation of safe and effective travel of nearly 40 years of service.
However, this reputation had been put to the test in recent months. A year earlier, there had been two crashes involving Sea Knight helicopters. One killed two sailors in the Mediterranean Sea, and another killed a naval sailor about 100 miles off Borneo. And a survey conducted by an Ohio newspaper found 71 documented incidents over 11 years of leaks or failures of the hydraulic system of the Sea Knight.
No Matter Where You Go...
The "fast rope" rappel to board a ship was part of the Special Operations Command's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's pre-deployment workup cycle for an upcoming six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, and was being conducted as a joint operation with the Navy SEALS, who were in the water aboard their boats preparing to assault from the sea. As part of the exercise, the Marines lugged assorted weapons and breaching tools, like 16-pound hammers to break down hatches, and 30-pound torches to cut through locks and latches.
At 12:47 p.m. the CH-46D, Naval Bureau Number 154790 and assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (HMM-166), lifted off from the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault helicopter carrier. The first of a five helicopter assault, it held half of the 5th Platoon, 1st Reconnaissance Company, of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, also known as the "1st Force Recon".
The boarding crew sat on two benches running the length of the helicopter's cabin. The Sea Knight was packed so full, that the First Lieutenant, part of the boarding assault, had to try a sit on an ammunition can. The helicopter proceeded uneventfully to its designated holding pattern several miles directly astern of the target ship, the USNS Pecos.
Crewed by 89 civilians working under contract to the U.S. Navy, and 6 Navy personnel, the USNS Pecos is part of the Military Sealift Command (MSC). A "Henry J. Kaiser"-class underway replenishment oiler, the 677-foot long USNS Pecos (T-AO-197) was placed into service with the MSC in 1990. She can carry 178,000 barrels of fuel oil at a maximum speed of 20 knots in order to supply needed supplies to frontline naval vessels.
At 1:06 PM., with 10 miles of flight visibility, a gentle 3-knot breeze, and an air temperature of 60 degrees, the helicopter was given approval by the Pecos to begin its approach. At an initial speed of slightly more than 100 mph and an altitude of 100 feet, the helicopter headed toward the ship.
The plan called for the 12 Force Recon Marines, and one Naval Medic, to "fast rope" 30 feet down on to the landing deck of the USNS Pecos, and simulate retaking the ship by force. Navy SEALs would backup the air assault from the sea and their Special Boat Unit rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs).
When the helicopter was about a quarter-mile behind the USNS Pecos, Corporal Adam Johns, a member of the flight crew, told one of the pilots that the helicopter was "coming in fast."
"Yep, I'm going in fast," the pilot replied as he slowed things down.
In the Details...
Aboard the Pecos, the chief mate of the vessel, assigned that day as a landing safety officer, saw the helicopter about a hundred yards away from the ship, and began to provide arm and hand signals for the pilots to increase power and altitude.
But he was dressed in white, not the traditional yellow for landing safety officers, so the pilot, Captain James I. Lukehart, & co-pilot Captain Andrew Q. Smith, ignored his instructions. They continued downward, low and fast. At a routine briefing on the sortie back on the Bonhomme Richard, no one had told them that the designated landing safety officer would be wearing white. Seeing the helicopter coming in hot, a Navy captain, overseeing the operation aboard the Pecos, screamed "Power!" into the radio.
No one aboard the Sea Knight heard the instructions, and neither pilot responded. The landing safety officer began to motion frantically that the helicopter was coming in too low. At the same time, Johns told the pilots, "Looking good and keep driving it in." However, the statement was from the truth.
Coming in low over the landing deck of the USNS Pecos, Capt. Lukehart, who had more than 1,650 hours of flight time, and Capt. Smith thought that their helicopter was15 to 20 feet above the deck. However, as the helicopter crossed the deck, Johns realized that the aircraft was "losing altitude" and made a call for "power," the first such call that Capt. Smith recalled hearing.
Marine Sergeant Robert Evers, who had been sitting in the left rear of the helicopter, heard a thumping sound at the rear of the helo, and thought it must be the sound of the aircraft landing on the deck. "What's going on?" he asked over his headset. However, in a deviation from standard operating procedures, Sgt. Evers did not look outside the left-side window as the helo descended.
If Sgt. Evers had followed the procedure, he would have been the first discover the reality of the situation - the left rear wheel of the helicopter had struck and become entangled in the safety netting at the rear of the Pecos.
Aboard the USNS Pecos, observers watching the landing began to shout into their radio calls for the helo to increase their power. But the crew of the helicopter had no clue that the damage had been done. Ensnared on the netting designed to save the lives of those knocked off the ship's deck, Captain Lukehart finally increased the helo's engine output. The front of the Sea Knight lifted skyward, and pivoted about the rear. The helo tilted and twisted to its port side, and plowed downward into the Pacific Ocean below, the rotors shattering as they struck the water
From touchdown to splashdown, seven seconds had elapsed.
At 1:16 in the afternoon, fourteen miles to the west-southwest of Point Loma, in the Pacific Ocean, the helicopter momentarily floated in the water. However, the design of the Sea Knight is inherently top-heavy. Within seconds, the weight of the two engines pulled the helicopter onto its back, and she begin to sink to the depths below.
Those aboard of helo were confused by what had just happened, and scrambled to escape the flooding tomb in which they were now entrapped. Some ditched the heavy equipment that encumbered their movement, quickly trying to gain their footing, and find a way out. The cabin darkened, and the Marines strained to remember their safety training: wait for the helicopter to stop rotating, find a reference point, and quickly move to an escape point.
Several found salvation and escape from the "Hell Hole", a 34-inch square opening in the floor, normally covered, and used for just such an emergency (and consequently, for "fast-roping").
While most of those aboard rushed to save their own lives, Gunnery Sergeant James Paige was assisting his fellow Marines out the doors of the sinking helo. Of all the Marines aboard, he was sitting nearest a door, had one of the easiest escape routes and, as an observer on the mission, he was not burdened with any heavy gear or equipment. With a few strokes, he could have been free of the wreck, and safe.
However, he stayed with his fellow Marines. Evers remembered seeing Paige, even as the helicopter began sinking rapidly. "As we were sinking, there was some light. It was coming through the gunner's door and the hell hole and the hatch and all the parts of the aircraft . . . I saw Gunny Paige . . . Somehow he got more forward, and he was helping people out of the crew door also. We went down. It got dark. I lost him. I couldn't see him anymore."
Sirens screeched on the deck of the USNS Pecos, as the two RIBs behind the ship turned to avoid colliding with the floating mass. The SEALs, first on the scene, aided those who were able to egress from the sinking chopper. In total, 11 Marines managed to find a way out of the Sea Knight, whose wreck plunged to the ocean floor at a depth of 3,600 feet.
Nine of the 11 Marines rescued were listed in stable condition aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, which is equipped to handle such trauma cases. However, two of the Marines, Captain Kapitulik (who exited via the "hell hole" and sustained a broken leg) and 1st Lt Michael Butler (who suffered a severely lacerated liver) were airlifted to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
Coast Guard Lt. Ted Woolridge, a helicopter pilot, was flying on another Coast Guard mission when he received an emergency call about the crash. When he arrived at the scene about 15 minutes later, he saw only a smoke flare and an air crew helmet floating in the water. "Obviously, the more time that passes, the less hopeful the scenario," he stated, commenting on the search at the time.
The U.S. Coast Guard had one ship and one helicopter out searching. Two U.S. Navy ships, with several other Marine Corps and naval aircraft, were also out searching for the seven missing. As the search continued into the night, searchers used some high-tech equipment, including night vision goggles and infrared sensors
But, at 4:45 PM, on December 11th, more than 51 hours after the crash, search and recovery operations were suspended by the Navy's Third Fleet.
Videotape Hits the Airways
A San Diego television station, the CBS affiliate KFMB-TV, obtained a videotape of the accident, making the visual details of the accident clear to a wondering public.
Memorial services were conducted at 1300 hours, December 20th,1999, in the Base Theater, Mainside, at Camp Pendleton, California. At the same time, member of the Navy's Deep Submergence Unit, using their remote-control vehicle Scorpio, found the wreck of the copter, and recovered the bodies of the three of the missing. Two days later, the remains of the other four were recovered and identified.
As a direct result of this accident, the Marine Corps implemented a training regimen to teach helicopter passengers how to successfully egress from a sinking helicopter, starting in the spring of 2001. Before the accident, only select Marines and aviators were subjected to the "Helo Dunker," but there was no standardized program for providing aircraft passengers with the skills necessary to survive a aquatic helicopter crash.
Six months after the crash, the Marine Corps investigation into the cause of the crash concluded the mishap was caused by human error, stating that the helicopter was flying too low and too fast when it approached the landing pad on the Pecos.
The investigation also laid blame at the hands of Sgt. Robert Evers, for not noticing that the left wheel of the Sea Knight was entangled. The investigation also noted that the preflight briefing was lacking.
It was decided by the Marine Corps not to prosecute the pilot or co-pilot in the matter, but they could face administrative penalties, as the investigation found that the aircraft and weather were not factors in the accident.
A posthumous medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, was awarded to Gunnery Sergeant James Paige, who died while trying to save crew members from the downed aircraft. The citation for Paige's medal, signed by Marine Commandant General James Jones, speaks of his heroism and valor and how "in total disregard of his own safety," Paige helped others escape.
The Marine Corps League Detachment, numbered #1127 , in East Brunswick, New Jersey, is named the "Gunnery Sergeant James Paige" detachment, in his honor.
In the 1st "Force Recon" (now called to U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command) annual awards program, the award for Communicator of the Year Award is now called “The S/SGT Jeffrey R. Starling Communicator of the Year Award." Also, The Special Operations Training Group (SOTG) Building at Camp Hansen on Okinawa has been named in Starling's honor & memory, and is now called “The S/SGT Jeffrey R. Starling SOTG Building”.
In March of 2006, the newly-constructed, state-of-the-art Dive Locker facility at Camp Pendleton was dedicated to one of the six Marines, Corporal Mark M. Baca, who had been one of the first members of the Marine Expeditionary Force Consolidated Dive Locker.
On the Special Operations Memorial at MacDill AFB in Florida, the names of the seven whom died that day in December are enshrined.