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Investigative report: Deadly Marine helicopter crash off Hawaii caused by pilot error, lack of training

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Memorial for 12 Marines lost at sea helicopter crash

A recently released investigative report shows that a lack of training and pilot error were to blame for the deadly Marine helicopter crash off Oahu, Hawaii earlier this year.

The crash 1,500 feet above water, on the night of January 14, was one of the deadliest non-combat military accidents in Hawaii’s history. Two CH-53E Super Stallions, conducting a nighttime training mission, collided causing a violent explosion that killed everyone on board instantly. The 53E, which is used to carry troops and haul heavy equipment, is ranked consistently among the military’s most crash-prone aircraft.

This mission was a physically and mentally demanding one, which involved night formation flying and the use of night vision devices. According to the report obtained by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley–Pegasus 31, the trailing aircraft, slammed into the lead, Pegasus 32, just as it was making a sharp left turn.

The investigation concluded that the main factors that contributed to the crash were: “low aircraft readiness leading to inadequate pilot efficiency, human factors, and the squadron’s lack of focus on basic aviation practices.”  The report highlights a Squadron with significant problems, including “low morale and complacency.”

Military officials agreed that the amount of flying time the four pilots had was far too low in the weeks leading up to this tragic mishap that claimed the lives of 12 Marines. The Marines goal is 15.1 flight hours in one month. But in this case, most of the pilots involved had logged significantly less flight training hours — the month before the crash. They “felt unprepared” and two of the pilots were not proficient in the use of night vision devices, the report said.

Sr. Naval analyst Chris Harmer says: “For an aviator with only 2.8 hours of NVD flight in the last 90 days to be put on a nighttime tactical formation flight using NVDs is extraordinarily irresponsible, bordering on criminal negligence.”

In a letter that Commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific Lt. Gen. David H. Berger wrote to the Marine Corps Commandant, he stated that the mishap was “avoidable.” Gen. Berger also wrote in the letter, which accompanied the investigation, that “the aircrews of Pegasus 31 and Pegasus 32 were not set up for success.”

The investigation also highlighted the effect of a “leadership shakeup” at the base three days before the accident.  The firing of Lt. Col Edward Pavelka “significantly disrupted the Squadron and was a contributing cause to this mishap,” the report said. A new commanding officer, for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron HMH-463, formally assumed command the morning of the crash.

According to Honolulu Civil Beat, the tragedy in Hawaii highlights “systemic problems that have plagued the Marine Corps’ heavy-lift helicopter program in recent years.”

There aren’t enough aircraft fit to fly because of inadequate resources and support for fleet-wide maintenance. In a separate review prepared for the Marine Corps last year, investigators found that Marines neglected to “reset” the aircraft after a decade of “very heavy and hard usage in war overseas.”

The entire Super Stallion fleet is now being restored over a three-year period, at a cost of $350 million.

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