Copley News Service January 29, 2002
Stress of war pushes aircraft, crews to limit
By James W. Crawley
They were a hand-picked crew, one of the squadron's best. And their machine, a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, was meticulously maintained and ready for war, officials said.
Why then, on the morning of Jan. 20, did the chopper from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego run into trouble midflight and crash in Afghanistan, killing two crew members and injuring five others?
The accident - the second to claim area Marines in January - is under investigation. But this much is known:
Flying in a war zone, whether it's on a bomb run or a supply run, is filled with danger and uncertainty, veteran pilots said. Not only can the enemy open fire, but flying is complicated by austere bases - sometimes no more than a level patch of sand - blowing dust, low-level flights and long hours in the cockpit, said military and aviation experts.
That's in addition to the inherent risks of flying helicopters.
"Operating in a combat environment is very different from operating at Miramar or Camp Pendleton," said Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, who was the Corps' most senior pilot until he retired last year.
Stress, both on crews and machines, is greater in combat situations. People work longer hours, pushing themselves and their aircraft to the limits, he said.
However, Marines train extensively for combat, McCorkle said. And aircraft training has improved greatly since the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm, so pilots and crews are better prepared for this war, he said.
The helicopter crash occurred just 11 days after seven Marines from Miramar died when their KC-130 aerial tanker plunged into a mountain while they tried to land at Shamsi Air Base, Pakistan.
Several concurrent investigations are examining each accident, but no connection has been drawn between the crash of the KC-130 tanker - a four-engine fixed-wing transport - and the crash of the helicopter.
Enemy action is not suspected in any of the military aircraft crashes in and around Afghanistan since the air war started Oct. 7. They included the crash of an Army Blackhawk helicopter that killed two Rangers in Pakistan and the loss of a B-1 bomber shortly after takeoff from Diego Garcia.
Monday, an Army CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter made a hard landing in eastern Afghanistan, injuring soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.
"Aircraft crashes are inevitable," said Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington military reform group.
In the Jan. 20 crash, early clues point toward mechanical failure.
The CH-53, assigned to Heavy Helicopter Squadron HMH-361, was one of two aircraft flying a resupply mission from Bagram air base, northeast of Kabul, to an undisclosed forward base.
About 30 minutes into the flight, pilots reported a problem before the helicopter crashed and burned at more than 9,000 feet altitude in snow-covered mountainous terrain about 40 miles south of Bagram.
Possible culprits include the helicopter's three jet engines, transmission, rotors, hydraulics, electronics and other equipment on board. Investigators also will examine maintenance, training and pilot records and interview survivors and personnel who serviced the helicopter.
Aviation and military experts said flying in Afghanistan presents a list of difficulties: dust, primitive living and working conditions, and high altitudes in the region's extensive mountain ranges.
Dust is a double enemy for helicopters.
When landing on soil or sand, helicopters are susceptible to brownout -thick clouds churned up by the rotors' downdraft that can block a pilot's vision and cause vertigo.
The Marines lost a UH-1 Huey at Camp Rhino, then a forward base in Afghanistan, on Dec. 6 during a brownout while the chopper was taking off. Two Marines were slightly injured.
Capt. William Cody, who was injured in the CH-53 crash, told a reporter before the accident that he had encountered brownouts while training near Yuma, Ariz., but the dust plumes in Afghanistan were more severe.
The dust also can get into machinery and erode rotor blades, experts said.
The Super Stallions have hefty filters that block dust and dirt from fouling their three jet engines, said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Pete Reyes, a maintenance specialist. He said those filters are inspected regularly.
"You always inspect (the aircraft) as if your life depended on it, which it absolutely does," he said.
Unlike in Yuma and Miramar, chopper crews in Afghanistan can't wash off the dirt from their aircraft.
Dusty conditions mean "it's obviously a high-maintenance environment," said John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank.
Repairing aircraft loaded with electronics and precision equipment can be difficult in a place where everything, from water to parts, must be flown in and repair crews live in tents, Pike said.
Maintenance is a challenge in Afghanistan, acknowledged Lt. Col. David Spasojevich, who commands the squadron. However, he and other Marines at Miramar said the helicopters in Afghanistan are receiving proper maintenance despite the primitive conditions.
The maintenance personnel and pilots the squadron sent to Afghanistan were chosen for the job before they left in November.
"They were a gold-plated crew. They were hand selected, the best that we had," the squadron leader said.
The military won't release the helicopter's repair records until the crash investigation is completed, a process that might take six months or more.
The mountains that sweep across Afghanistan are troublesome.
Flying at higher altitudes is difficult for a helicopter, experts said.
As a chopper climbs, it loses power and lift in the thinner air, said Mott Stanchfield, a veteran helicopter test pilot. While a helicopter might be able to fly at high altitudes, most can't hover, land or take off at those heights, he said.
McCorkle, who was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, said high-altitude flying is "at the top of the list of major concerns" for pilots. Controls become sluggish and maneuverability is more difficult in the thin air, he said.
McCorkle did not speak about the latest crash, but he said: "If you lose an engine at 9,000 feet, it's going to be twice as hard (to land safely). You've lost a lot of your lift, especially if you're heavy" with cargo or personnel.
Add that to the challenging job of flying a helicopter.
Helicopters, which get their ability to fly from the lift created by the whirling rotor blades, are much more complex than fixed-wing airplanes, experts said.
"It's a demanding vehicle to say the least," said Stanchfield. "It takes almost constant attention."
With its multitude of moving parts and its dependence on engine power to stay aloft, some problems on a chopper can quickly turn from troublesome to life-threatening, experts said.
"There's little you can lose on a helicopter that isn't a major event," said Stanchfield, referring to the engines, transmission and flight controls.
And, Hellman said, "Gravity is a very uncompromising force."
Copyright 2002 Copley News Service