As search and rescue teams work nonstop to find five service members lost at sea following a Navy helicopter crash off the coast of San Diego, a former pilot and accident investigator has some insight into these types of Navy aircraft.
Dan Lennon flew MH-60s helicopters when he was in the Navy. The same airship crashed at sea Tuesday during “routine flight operations” with six crew members aboard.
"The aircraft, from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 8, was operating on deck before crashing into the sea," the U.S. Third Fleet said in a news release sent out on Wednesday.
One crew member was rescued at the crash site, but the rest of the crew remain unaccounted for. The helicopter was assigned to USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier homeported in Coronado.
“We were highly trained. It's a pretty rigorous training process to fly something like that,” Lennon said of his MH-60S flight experience.
One of Lennon’s chief concerns is the distance the helicopter fell from USS Abraham Lincoln’s flight deck. Water impact from a 60 to 70-foot drop could have bent the frame of the helicopter, making it difficult for crewmembers to exit safely, Lennon said.
Lennon said he hasn’t heard about a helicopter crashing off the deck of an aircraft carrier in years.
“My heart and prayers go out to the families of these sailors and airmen who are lost at sea, and I really help the recovery efforts can find them,” he said.
A former Navy SEAL familiar with MH-60s described what it may have been like trying to escape the downed helicopter.
“They get knocked out then they can’t undo the seatbelt, they can’t swim clear, and sometimes it can just be really catastrophic and confusing in there where it’s really dark and everything,” former SEAL Jeffrey Gum said.
Lennon, who as a crash investigator was responsible for reviewing incidents involving any MH-60S in the Western Pacific Fleet, said it’s possible the pilot lost hydraulic control before the helicopter fell into the sea.
“Pushed the controls hard in one direction. It could have also been some combination of the aircraft not being fully chalked down and them trying to take off,” Lennon said.
Lennon believes something out of the ordinary must've happened for the helicopter to go down.
“Landing on a ship like that -- short of the aircraft getting into any kind of ground resonance and starting to shake itself apart and rolling over – it’s hard to imagine what could have gone wrong at that level,” he said.
Five sailors on the flight deck were also injured in the incident, according to the Navy. Three were treated on the ship and two had to be removed.
The MH-60S is a versatile aircraft that typically carries a crew of about four and is used in missions including combat support, humanitarian disaster relief, and search-and-rescue.
An investigation of the incident is underway, according to military officials.