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2 crew members dead, 1 missing after Norfolk helicopter crash

Jan. 8, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Navy helicopter crash searchers still optimistic
Navy helicopter crash searchers still optimistic: While one crewman is still missing following the Navy helicopter crash off Cape Henry on Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard members are optimistic and not giving up any time soon.
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Navy Capt. Todd Flannery, left, commander Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, and Coast Guard Capt. John K. Little, Sector Hampton Roads commander, answer questions about the Jan. 8 crash of a Navy MH-53-E Sea Dragon helicopter into the Atlantic off Virginia Beach, Va. (Bill Tiernan / AP)
An MH-53E helicopter went into the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia Beach, Va., on Wednesday morning. Two crew members have died and one remains missing. Two other crewman remain hospitalized. (MC2 Lyle H. Wilkie / Navy)

Two crew members are dead and a third remains missing after the Wednesday-morning crash of a Norfolk, Va.-base MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, the Navy said.

The service announced the death of the second crew member via Twitter on Wednesday night. Two other crew members remain hospitalized, according to a report from WVEC-TV — one in serious condition, one in fair condition. The search continues into the night for the fifth, with Navy surface assets, helicopters and dive boats working alongside the Coast Guard and Virginia Beach Fire Department.

The MH-53E, which is assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, was operating with another Sea Dragon before making a 10:45 a.m. distress call and entering the water, Naval Air Forces Atlantic spokesman Cmdr. Mike Kafka said.

The aircraft was completely submerged when a Coast Guard rescue crew arrived on scene, Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads commander Capt. John Little said.

Less than an hour after the initial distress call, four crew members from the MH-53E were pulled from the water and transported to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. All five aboard the helicopter — two pilots and three aircrewmen — were wearing anti-exposure survival suits designed to keep water away from the body, Capt. Todd Flannery, head of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, said at a Wednesday-afternoon news conference.

Flannery said he did not know whether safety issues that contributed to a fatal 2012 MH-53E crash in the Middle East were a factor. The Navy is investigating Wednesday’s crash; Flannery said he did not know whether remaining MH-53s will be grounded to determine their safety.

Kafka said he wasn’t aware of the exact nature of the aircraft’s mission. A Navy news release said the helicopter was performing “routine training operations.”

The Coast Guard cutter Shearwater, which was two miles from the site at the time of the incident, remained on the scene Wednesday night, aiding in search efforts. Other units include the destroyer Jason Dunham, amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, salvage vessel Grasp and dry cargo ship Medgar Evers, according to WVEC-TV, along with MH-60S helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Support Squadrons 2 and 28 and divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2.

Officials told the TV station that the local fire department has located the helicopter’s fuselage and tail section using radar.

The MH-53E is primarily used for airborne mine countermeasures, operating from aircraft carriers and other warships and towing a variety of mine-hunting and minesweeping systems.

Its secondary missions include vertical shipboard delivery and, when fitted with a .50-cal machine gun weapon system, assault support.

The incident comes one day after an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter went down on the eastern coast of England, killing all four crew members. The helicopter, based out of RAF Lakenheath, crashed into the coast Tuesday evening during a low-flying training mission. Investigators are surveying the scene but had not recovered the crew’s remains as of Wednesday morning local time, according to an Associated Press report.

The Sea Dragon airframe is in use by two Norfolk-based squadrons — HM-14 and HM-15.

In 2012, two MH-53Es assigned to HM-15 suffered separate mishaps in the Middle East — a crash southwest of Muscat, Oman, in July that killed two crew members and a hard landing after an engine failure on takoff in August at Bahrain International Airport. The unit’s commanding officer and command master chief were fired in September of that year.

Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.

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