Nellis Air Force Base, NV Two Helicopters Crash, Sep 1998
12 DIE IN CRASH OF 2 MILITARY HELICOPTERS.
AIRCRAFT CREWS BASED AT NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE IN NEVADA WERE CONDUCTING A NIGHTTIME TRAINING MISSION.
In one of the worst training accidents in recent Air Force history, all 12 crew members aboard a pair of rescue squadron helicopters were killed early Friday when their choppers crashed in the darkness of the Nevada desert.
The two Pave Hawk helicopters were nearing the end of a routine four-hour training mission when they went down shortly after midnight about 55 miles north of Las Vegas in a mountain region that reaches heights of 6,800-feet, military officials said.
Officials said they will investigate the possibility of a midair collision, but they stressed that this is only one of several scenarios that will be reviewed.
A military board "will be working months to try to figure out what happened. There are so many different ways it could have happened, and we're not looking at any one," said Mike Estrada, spokesman at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, where both crews were based.
Flight plans called for the pilots to use night vision goggles - which have come under intense criticism in recent years because of their suspected role in dozens of accidents. Nellis crew members have been using newer, upgraded goggles that provide more light and three-dimensional views, Estrada said.
"Every aspect of what the crew was doing is thoroughly investigated to prevent future accidents," said Lt. Col. Jay DeFrank. "If night vision goggles had any role in this, that will be investigated."
The crash was the deadliest ever out of Nellis, a military base steeped in mystery and science fiction lore because of its links through the years to the Stealth bomber, U-2 spy planes, the supposed Roswell UFO and the secretive "Area 51" test site.
The disaster also ranks as
"certainly one of the worst [training accidents] in terms of the number of lives lost" in recent Air Force history, said Maj. Alan Gregory at Air Combat Command in Virginia.
The victims all men, were part of the 66th Rescue Squadron, the largest in the Air Force, which was recently deployed in Turkey and the Persian Gulf. The 65-foot long helicopters that crashed Friday can reach speeds of up to 222 mph and are typically used by a six-member crew to locate downed pilots trapped in enemy territory.
The two flight crews were conducting a standard training mission, navigating the mountain region and conducting low-altitude flying to practice means of evading antiaircraft guns and surface to air missiles, officials said. Such training sessions are run from Nellis almost nightly.
The two crews left the base about 8:30 p.m. Thursday and were flying in a light rain. They were due back at 12:30 a.m.
Because the crews were flying at low altitudes, there was no radar contact from the base, Estrada said, and there was not believed to have been any emergency signal.
"There was nothing to indicate any trouble," Estrada said, until the choppers failed to return by 1 a.m.
Search crews found the wreckage about 4:30 a.m., he said, and officials determined seven hours later that there were no survivors.
Late Friday, Nellis released the names of the 12 victims, but did not provide details on their ages or hometowns.
The victims were identified as:
CAPT. GREGG W. LEWIS, pilot.
CAPT PHILLIP MILLER, co-pilot.
STAFF SGT. KEVIN M. BRUNELLE, flight engineer.
STAFF SGT. KENNETH W. EAGLIN, flight engineer.
SENIOR AIRMAN JESSE D. STEWART, para-rescueman.
MASTER SGT. MATTHEW STURTEVANT, gunner.
LT. COL. WILLIAM H. MILTON, pilot.
CAPT. KARL YOUNGPLOOD, pilot.
TECH. SGT. JEFFREY R. ARMOUR, flight engineer.
SENIOR AIRMAN ADAM STEWART, flight engineer.
AIRMAN 1st CLASS JUSTIN WOTASIK, para-rescueman.
and 2nd LT. MICHAEL HARWELL, mission essential ground personnel.
The tragedy drew words of support for the families from Vice President Al Gore. Brig. Gen. Theodore Lay II, commander of the 57th Wing at the base, said that
"everyone at Nellis has been affected by this tragedy." A family support center was set up at the base to aid the grieving.
The men and women of the base, Lay said, "regularly risk their lives so that they may save others. This morning's loss serves to remind all of us of the dangers inherent in the defense of our nation."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Los Angeles Times California 1998-09-05