After days of scouring the ocean for nine missing military members, the search has turned from a rescue mission to a recovery mission after a Marine Corps helicopter and a Coast Guard plane collided in flight Thursday.
"I've reached the conclusion that hope is no longer viable," United States Coast Guard District 11 Commander Admiral Joseph Castill said. "We grieve this loss with the families, this is not the outcome we hoped for, prayed for, that we had worked diligently to accomplish."
The pilots of the AH-1W Super Cobra that collided with a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Thursday were identified as Maj. Samuel Leigh, 35, from Maine and 1st Lt. Thomas Claiborne, 26, from Colorado. They were both pilots with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469.
Leigh's father, David, said his son, who was not married, was based in San Diego and was focused on a military career "since age 3." Leigh went to Norwich University, a military school in Vermont, and joined the Marines right after graduation in 1996.
"He wasn't mechanically inclined, so we were particularly proud of him, because he had to master an awful lot," said David Leigh, who lives in Belgrade. The family last spoke to their son Wednesday by phone. He told them he would be night-flying the following evening.
As family members prayed for a miracle, hope faded this weekend for those still searching for the missing and for answers to what happened.
"As we shift into recovery efforts, we'll continue to have assets out there working with the investigative team to determine how this happened, why it happened, and what can be done to keep it from happening again," Admiral Joseph Castill said.
The missing crewmembers from the Coast Guard C-130 are:
All were stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento, Calif., where their aircraft was based.
"Family members of the missing were notified last night that the rescue mission would be coming to an end today. According to the coast guard the decision was met with understanding and very little resistance," Admiral Joseph Castill said.
The C-130 took off from Sacramento Thursday to look for a missing boat off San Diego. At the same time, a formation of four helicopters, two from Miramar, and two from Camp Pendleton were conducting a training mission.
The pentagon says the C130 broadsided one of the AH1-Cobra helicopters from Camp Pendleton.
"As soon as you saw it, it was obvious," Ron Newcome said, who saw the collision from a beach in La Jolla. "We noticed a large fireball in the sky followed immediately, as it started to die down, by another fireball."
The crash site is an area without much air traffic control where the Coast Guard says pilots use a “see and avoid” technique.
"It would not be unusual for multiple military aircraft to be working in the same area, at or near the same altitude," Capt. Farris said. "These are different rules, they're much more lax, and they’re designed to give maximum training capability to the military aircraft and highly trained military aviators that are operating in that area."
The Coast Guard confirmed the C-130 did have a black box flight data recorder on board. That piece of equipment has not yet been recovered.