A Coast Guard plane and a Marine Corps helicopter that collided mid-air "burst into a fireball," according to Marines on at least one chopper that witnessed the crash. Seven people aboard the plane and two pilots aboard the helicopter remained missing Friday.
Pentagon and U.S. military officials say four Marine helicopters were flying in formation from San Diego to San Clemente island about dusk Thursday night when the Coast Guard C-130 collided with an AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter.
"The C-130 hit the Cobra broadside," according to a Pentagon official.
The four choppers, two Cobra attack helicopters and two H-53 Sea Stallions, were flying to a firing range on San Clemente for a training mission. The Super Cobra belongs to Marine Aircraft Group 39 headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton.
A Pentagon official says the mid-air crash occurred "right at dusk" which may have made visibility difficult.
The 20-hour window of survival time given for the average person has been and gone for the nine missing, but officials say the missing are not your average people and they’re holding onto hope.
“You don’t base your rescue on anecdotal evidence,” Coast Guard Capt. Tom Farris said at an 11 a.m. press conference. “We’re making a decision to continue to search.”
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor says the Thursday night crash occurred minutes after FAA controllers instructed the Coast Guard C-130 pilot to begin communicating with military air controllers.
The spokesman initially said there was a handoff from the FAA to the military controllers.
The Coast Guard crewmembers had survival gear onboard their aircraft, including exposure suits that could have allowed them to survive in the water for hours, Coast Guard officials said Friday morning. But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that although the search continues, the collision likely killed the nine crew members.
The U.S. Marine Corps says it will be making an "operational pause" Friday -- no aircraft will fly.
"This is a very difficult time for the Marine Corps," Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Jay De La Rosa said.
Crewmembers who have flown on the C-130 airplane describe it as a reliable, sturdy and easy-flying plane.
"It's probably one of the safest airframes the Coast Guard has had," Petty Officer Matthew Schofield said.
Schofield was a navigator and radioman on a Coast Guard C-130. He says the aircraft can act as a communications hub between land, sea and air. It's used for supply drops and assisting with navigation among other things.
"It does a lot of different things when it's doing a search and rescue or any other mission for that matter," he said.
Schofield says with his experience aboard the C-130 -- news of the collision between the Coast Guard plane and the Marine Corps Super Cobra helicopter hit close to home.
“It was probably one of the most difficult calls I think I got because I still have friends that fly and they're flying every day. I want to know who it was and how and all that kind of stuff, personally," he said. "I just think about the families, like what they're thinking at this time. I try to put myself in their shoes."
He says it's hard not to think, “that could have been me,” but says he has a job to do.
“I'm going to continue to do that day in and day out and that's the best thing I can do to help them out."
No one in that missing group of people has been identified publicly. Coast Guard officials say they have been in touch with the families of those missing.
The cause of the collision is under investigation.