Military Times

Landing pad blamed for Super Cobra crash

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First Lt. Ryan Iannelli and Lt. Col. Allen Grinalds were lifting off in their AH-1W Super Cobra for an afternoon strike mission in southern Afghanistan when the helicopter's noseplunged suddenly.

Grinalds, the commanding officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, called out a warning from the rear seat and took the stick, but to no avail. A panel on the landing pad had come loose in the rotor wash and hooked the right skid.

Less than 20 feet in the air,the aircraft crashed tothe ground, nose first. It rolled right and the main rotor broke apart. One blade sheared off the canopy, striking Iannelli.

The $10.7 million aircraft was totaled and Iannelli was dead within hours, robbing HMLA-269 of one of its most promising young pilots.

"The great thing about Ryan was that not only was he extraordinarily capable as an officer and Marine aviator, but he believed in the mission and had a very bright future. He was a very special leader," Grinalds said in a recent interview with Marine Corps Times.

Neither Marine was at fault for the Sept. 28 crash at an unidentified patrol base,according to a redacted version of the final investigation, obtained in March by Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"The aircraft commander did everything correctly to recover an aircraft in an un-recoverable condition," wrote Maj. Gen. Glenn M. Walters, the commanding general of 2nd Marine Air Wing (Forward), who authorized the investigation. "I specifically find that 1st Lt. Iannelli's death occurred in the line of duty and was not due to misconduct."

There were two factors that contributed to the cause of the accident, according to the opinions section of the final investigation.

First, while landing mattingwas properly installed, per documents detailing the system and its uses, "it was not secured adequately to the deck, allowing a gap to form between panels when the presence of rotor downwash existed."

Second, the toe of the right skid slid forward during takeoff and hooked the matting, which was flapping from rotor wash.

Neither of those factors could have been predicted by the pilots, who were ruled "competent and proficient in their duties," the report says.

The crash

The helicopter was between 10 and 20 feet off the ground when it crashed, according to witnesses.

The liftoff went from routine to catastrophic almost immediately, according to Grinalds' official witness statement.

"As we got light on the skids, everything appeared normal," he wrote Oct. 2. "As we lifted off the ground, the nose immediately pitched down as we continued to climb. I immediately called 'too low' as [Iannelli] began saying 'wow, wow' and I came on the controls. I was on the controls at the time of the crash."

Grinalds made several inputs to the stick and pedals, but nothing corrected the aircraft, which hit at about 4:53 p.m., just two seconds after takeoff.

"I felt a jarring crash, felt and heard a loud explosion, and then all violent motion stopped. The top of the canopy was gone. The main rotor blade sheared it off."

Several Marines descended on the crash site to render aid. Grinalds, who was relatively unscathed, pulled himself from the wreckage and moved to the nose, where he saw Iannelli, who had sustained head injuries.

Grinalds and several aviation supporters worked to pull Iannelli out.

The helo had caught fire and still hadlive weapons. The engines and transmission were still turning, and it was leaking fuel.

While Navy medical personnel arrived on the scene, others worked furiously to douse the flames and shut down the engines. Several attempts failed, but pulling the aircraft's circuit breakers finally worked. The flames were extinguished with water bottles.

Within about 30 minutes, an Army medical evacuation helicopter arrived to transport Iannelli to the Shock Trauma Platoon at a nearby combat outpost. Iannelli, a 27-year-old from East Greenwich Township, N.J., arrived for care at 5:40 p.m. but could not be revived. He was pronounced dead at 6 p.m.

Iannelli was posthumously promoted to captain.

Grinalds suffered a bruised kidney and minor injuries to his hand, but has recovered well, he said.

The investigation

Investigators issued four recommendations in the report, although one was not approved by Walters.

While not faulting installation or maintenance of the landing pad, investigators cited the need to better inform ground crews and pilots, to help prevent future incidents.

It recommended new warnings to ensure the Expeditionary Airfield Light-Duty Mat Systems — also called Mobi-matting — are well secured. Those warnings will be added to several publications including AH-1W Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization Flight Manual, dated June 30, 2010.

Walters endorsed this recommendation of additional warning. However, he did not approve another that would have instructed Marines to use mooring stakes to anchor Mobi-matting. This needs more study, Walters said in the report, because it could exacerbate other problems, including bowing.

The other two recommendations, both approved by Walters, were that no further investigation is warranted, nor is any punishment.

Although not an official recommendation, the report asks pilots to make vertical takeoffs on Mobi-matting, being careful not to slide forward while light on the skids.

Marines cleared

Iannelli was described in the report as young but diligent. His officer in charge in Afghanistan said he gave an outstanding impression as an officer and pilot. He was often seen studying tactical publications and maps for upcoming missions.

Grinalds has had years in the seat of a Super Cobra and is decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross with "V" for saving a British unit from Iraqi artillery and tanks during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Lt. Col. Grinalds holds nearly every qualification and designation possible in the AH-1W. As the senior aviator and Commanding Officer of the squadron, he is extremely familiar with any and all aspects of the Cobra," reads the official investigation.

Grinalds is no longer the CO of HMLA-269, which is based out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. He is now at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., where he serves as director of Marine Corps Aviation Training Systems, which develops standard training doctrine.

As part of the investigation, flight simulators at New River were used to determine whether other pilots could prevent catastrophe in the same situation. They were briefed ahead of time on the accident and knew one of their skids would be hooked, but were still unable to avoid a crash 50 percent of the time.

An email from one major overseeing testing said that the simulator pilots had every possible advantage and practiced several times, but still couldn't avoid crashing.

The actual pilots in the crash, he wrote, "had one chance at this flight."

Staff writer Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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