Search and rescue crews from the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, Honolulu Fire Department, and Ocean Safety are responding to a report of a downed Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter approximately two miles west of Kaena Point, Oahu, Wednesday.
Two UH-60s from the 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade were taking part in a routine training mission when one helicopter lost radio and visual contact with the other. The helicopter was reported missing at around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Five soldiers were on board at the time — two pilots and three crew members. Military officials confirm all were members of the 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler Army Airfield.
The helicopters were conducting training between Kaena Point and Dillingham Airfield at the time communications were lost.
Watchstanders at the Coast Guard Joint Rescue Command Center in Honolulu received a call at 10:08 p.m. Tuesday from personnel at Wheeler Army Airfield stating they lost communications with one of their UH-60 Black Hawk aircrews. Watchstanders issued an urgent marine information broadcast and directed the launch of response assets.
“The second helicopter crew did an initial pass to see if they could recover contact with the aircraft, and then again standard procedure for us to have two aircraft in the air to assist and for safety, notified Wheeler Air Field, and then we went and picked up some support and came back out, in that interim contact with the Coast Guard and everything else,” said Lt. Col. Curt Kellogg, 25th Infantry Division.
When asked if a mayday call was received, he replied, “I’m not aware of any, but I don’t have the specifics and I won’t get into a lot of specifics, because there will be an investigation into this particular incident.”
“Our hearts are heavy as search and rescue crews work at the site of an Army helicopter crash off of Kaena Point. We stand with our U.S. Army ohana during this difficult time.” — Gov. David Ige
Debris field found
Search-and-rescue efforts are focused around a debris field roughly five miles off Kaena Point by the Coast Guard Hercules and Army Black Hawk aircrews at 11:28 p.m. Tuesday.
So far, what appears to be a fuselage and a helmet were discovered in the area.
“Out there you mostly get converging currents that move in all directions,” said Lt. Scott Carr, U.S. Coast Guard 14th District. “Near shore, you get a swirling factor, but for the most part with the winds, we’re seeing debris move to the west, so we have positioned our offshore search-and-rescue assets out a little further. Of course HFD is taking that area about three to five miles offshore and Ocean Safety will work in closer to shore with their jet ski crews.”
A joint forward incident command post has been established at Haleiwa Boat Harbor to manage shoreline search logistics and debris recovery.
“As we pick up debris, we’ll bring that back here and we’ll assemble that, but investigators will eventually delve into what may or may not have caused this,” Kellogg said. “Initially, obviously, we’re going to bring it back and secure it at Wheeler airfield, but as far as beyond that, I don’t have any other information to provide.”
Lt. John Hoogsteden, Ocean Safety Division, says four ocean safety units are involved in search-and-rescue efforts. Conditions were 3- to 6-foot seas with strong, east-northeast trade winds. “It’s a pretty choppy, disorganized ocean,” he said.
The State Dept. of Land and Natural Resources closed Kaena Point State Park to car, foot, and bicycle traffic as the investigation continues.
Search-and-rescue efforts continue
Maj. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, said the missing soldiers’ family members have all been notified and updated on ongoing operations to find the missing aircrew.
“We continue to search with our partners in the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the Honolulu Fire Department, and Honolulu Ocean Rescue,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with our missing Soldiers and their families. They can count on our full support during this difficult time. We are proud of their loved ones’ service and will bring them home.”
The operation will continue through nightfall and overnight with Coast Guard cutters Ahi and Walnut. “As far as aviation assets, we’ll have to make that determination take a look at crew and see what we can do,” Carr said.
Officials say some debris may start to appear on the shoreline.
If you see anything that looks like it could be aircraft debris, call the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Staff Duty Officer at (808) 656-1080.
“There is always a chance that debris can wash up on shore and be found by people in the community as they walk on the beach or even recreational boaters as they’re out on the water,” said Kellogg. “Let them know where that debris is, and I would ask that they please do not handle it for their own safety and the integrity of the investigation which is being initiated for this incident.”
Debris from the crash should be considered hazardous material and should only be recovered by recovery teams with the proper training and personal protective equipment.
The debris poses potential risk and could cause serious bodily harm due to sharp edges.
Night training and safety procedures
The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is a transport aircraft designed to move packs and equipment. It can seat up to 11 passengers and four crew members.
Although it comes with obvious dangers, officials say night training is necessary.
“Our aviation assets as well as all our soldiers train at night. That’s what we do. It’s one of our key competencies to train at night and that’s what these air crews were doing. They were flying at night to remain in competent in that skill set, which is something we need to do to accomplish our wartime mission,” said Kellogg.
Safety precautions include having two helicopter crews out at the same time.
Inside the aircraft itself, there are additional safety measures. Altimeters, various lights and alarms that can provide warning to the pilots.
But Ray L’Heureux, a former Black Hawk squadron commander, tells us depending on where the altimeter is set and rate of speed the aircraft is traveling, pilots have little if any room for error. “A moment of inattention is all you need,” he said.
L’Heureux says as a former commander, the first order of duty is to go over the flight plan, see who’s flying, and assess the risks. He says a typical daytime flight using visual rules is considered very low risk. However flying at night, especially in an area such as Kaena Point where there is very little ambient light, is considered the big leagues.
“Aviation in itself is inherently risky and dangerous, and then you look at something at night, perhaps on night vision devices, which we don’t know if they were flying with these or not,” L’Heureux said, and it’s “very risky. So you would kind of do some sort of operational risk management for that kind of a flight.”