This as a tragedy that happened during a training exercise in 12/9/1999. The transport pilot wasn’t going in to land, he was supposed to hover over the flight deck to insert the Marine platoon on board via fast rope. He came in too low and the wheel got caught on the safety net. 7 lives were lost that day, but 11 were plucked from the water.
At 12:47 p.m. on December 9, 1999, the CH-46 Sea Knight lifted off from the Bonhomme Richard as the lead of five helicopters on an exercise to train Marines how to “take down” a hostile ship at sea. While SEALs boarded the ship from rubber boats, the Marines would lower themselves hand over hand from a rope dangling from the hovering helicopter. As part of the exercise, the Marines lugged assorted weapons and breaching tools, including 16-pound hammers and 30-pound cutting torches.
The Sea Knight proceeded uneventfully to a designated holding pattern 10 to 12 miles behind the rear of the target ship, the oiler Pecos, manned mostly by civilians. At 1:06 p.m., with 10 miles’ visibility, a 3-knot breeze and an air temperature of 60 degrees, the helicopter was given approval by the Pecos to begin an approach. At an initial speed of slightly more than 100 mph and an altitude of 100 feet, the helicopter
headed toward the ship.
When the helicopter was about a quarter-mile behind the Pecos, Cpl. Adam Johns, a member of the flight crew, told one of the pilots, Capt. James Lukehart Jr., that the helicopter was “coming in fast.”
“Yep, I’m going in fast,” Lukehart replied as he slowed things down.
Lukehart and the other pilot, Capt. Andrew Smith, cut speed to about 60mph and kept the aircraft at an altitude between 65 and 100 feet.
Smith gave a one-minute warning so the Marines could unbuckle and prepare to stand and lower themselves through the hell hole. Smith then gave a 30-second warning, by which time all the Marines were standing.
SEALs in boats behind the Pecos thought the helicopter was flying low; perhaps the Marines planned to land rather than hover. Marines aboard the CH-46 observed an inordinate amount of propeller wash in the water.
The chief mate aboard the Pecos, assigned as a landing safety officer, saw the helicopter at 100 yards out 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, and Smith and Lukehart ignored his instructions. At a routine briefing on the Bonhomme Richard, no one had told them that the landing safety officer would be in white.
Helicopter 154790 continued on its course.
A Navy captain aboard the Pecos screamed “power” into the radio, but the CH-46 did not receive the instructions and neither pilot responded. The white-clad 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.”
As the Sea Knight reached the Pecos, Smith and Lukehart believed it to be 15 to 20 feet above the deck. But as the helicopter crossed the deck, Johns realized that the aircraft was “losing altitude” and made a “power” call, the first such call that Smith remembered hearing. Sgt. Evers heard a thumping noise at the rear and thought it must be the sound of the aircraft landing on the deck. “What’s going on?” he demanded over his headset.
In a deviation from standard policy, Evers did not look outside the left-side window. If he had, he could have seen that the left rear wheel had hit a “man-overboard” safety netting at the rear of the Pecos.
A second after the thump, Lukehart’s radio exploded with calls for “power, power, power,” issued by observers on the Pecos who could not see that the wheel was fouled in the safety netting. Lukehart applied more power, and the front portion of the helicopter began to lift. The rear section, in effect, was anchored, and the helicopter lifted slowly, agonizingly, to an unnatural, almost upright position.
With the nose of the CH-46 straining upward, the helicopter rolled gently to its left and crashed heavily into the ocean. It was so close to the Pecos that spray hit the deck. The propellers exploded into thousands of pieces and the helicopter began filling with water as it
continued to roll over.
It had taken six seconds from the moment Evers heard the “thump” to the crash.
The unbuckled Marines were thrown asunder. Heavy, sharp-edged equipment floated everywhere. Safety lights failed. The helicopter’s flotation device failed to activate. The pilots’ escape doors failed. Staff Sgt. Mark Schmidt said later: “It was so dark that I couldn’t see anybody’s face.”
Just 40 seconds after the helicopter’s wheel had become ensnared in the ship’s safety fence, it was over. The Sea Knight sank in 3,900 feet of water, with six Marines and a Navy corpsman still inside.
The eleven survivors were plucked quickly from the water by crewmen in rubber boats who had just delivered the SEALs. The helicopter sank so quickly that there was no time to mount a diving attempt to look for additional survivors. Seven Navy and Marine Corps personnel perished in the tragedy.
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