Student pilot error is believed to have caused the crash in August 2021 of a TH-57 Sea Ranger training helicopter, which left the student and instructor pilot with what authorities described at the time as critical but non-life-threatening injuries.

Still, authorities can’t say for sure what caused the mishap due to several factors, according to an investigation obtained by Navy Times.

First among those factors was the lack of a flight data recorder aboard the training helo, an issue that investigators said will be corrected as the training wing transitions to newer aircraft.

Click below to read the full report.

The crash occurred Aug. 19, 2021, at Navy Outlying Field Santa Rosa, Florida.

It occurred after the instructor told the student to conduct a 90-degree “power recovery autorotation,” a maneuver used in emergency situations or loss of power.

But the aging TH-57 used on the day of the accident does not contain a flight data recorder, and neither the student nor instructor could remember the details of the crash afterward.

“Though pilot error remains the most likely cause of the mishap, the scant available data does not lend a more precise conclusion about what led to the crash,” the investigation states.

The most likely scenario is that the student made an error that the instructor failed to recognize or correct in time.

“Due to the inability of the mishap crew to recall the specifics of the incident, coupled with limited witness accounts of the event, and further inhibited by the lack of a flight data recorder, the specifics of the incident are unascertainable,” the investigation states.

The issue hopefully will not repeat in the future. Training Air Wing 5 is transitioning to a newer helo, the TH-73, which will contain a crash-survivable flight data recorder, according to the investigation.

As the student attempted the maneuver that day, witnesses reported seeing the bird 100 feet in the air with its nose up as it descended.

“The main rotor speed was viewed as extremely low(CQ, not slow), and the aircraft attitude remained the same throughout the descent,” the investigation states. “The aircraft impacted the ground, rotated about the nose (180 degrees) counterclockwise, rolled onto its right side and came to rest on the approach end of Runway 18.”

Neither the instructor nor student were identified, but they both were hospitalized in serious condition with non-life-threatening injuries following the crash. Both individuals’ names are redacted in the investigation copy provided to Navy Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Such an autorotation is a challenging maneuver, but one that all helicopter pilots need to be proficient at, Michael Canders, a retired military rescue pilot who flew helicopters for the Navy and later the Air Force, told Navy Times after reviewing the investigation.

“In that environment with a new pilot, it’s not terribly hard to mess that up,” said Canders, now director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College in New York.

Mechanical, maintenance or weather issues also were not found to have played a role in the mishap.

“Interviews with the aircrew indicated the transit to the (outer lying field) and the maneuvers before the crash, including an identical one to the mishap maneuver conducted immediately before the crash, were completed uneventfully,” the investigator wrote.

Training Air Wing 5′s commanding officer reported that instructors noted that, while the student “had shown some issues with air work on previous events, these issues were normal flight student issues that the flight syllabus is designed to instruct and correct.”

“His prior performance and motivation in and out of the aircraft were well within the standards required of flight students,” the investigation states.

The instructor “was fully qualified to conduct the flight and had previously demonstrated the ability to instruct the flight,” according to the probe.

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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