Update: Report into Cley helicopter crash finds US Air Force pilots knocked unconscious by “multiple bird strikes”.
12:08 09 July 2014
A report from an investigation into the helicopter crash at Cley which killed four US airmen has found that the pilot and co-pilot were knocked unconscious by multiple bird strikes.
A report released this morning by US officials has found “clear and convincing evidence” into the January 7 crash, which killed Captains Christopher S Stover, 28, and Sean M Ruane, 31, Technical Support Sergeant Dale E Mathews, 37, and Staff Sergeant Afton M Ponce, 28.
The four airmen, all based at RAF Lakenheath, were part of the 56th Rescue Squadron, part of the 48th Fighter Wing.
A statement from USAFE said: “At the conclusion of the investigation, the board president, Brig. Gen. Jon Norman, found clear and convincing evidence that multiple bird strikes caused the mishap by rendering the pilot and co-pilot unconscious and disabling the trim and flight path stabilization system.”
The convening authority of the US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, Vice Commander Lt Gen Tom Jones, approved the board president’s report without comments.
The crew were taking part in a simulation of a nighttime rescue scenario at the time of the incident, around 6.05pm, in one of two US Pave Hawk helicopters involved.
The report states that the aircraft was hit by a flock of geese that was likely startled by its approach, with at least three going through the windscreen.
At least one goose also hit the nose aerial gunner, rendering them unconscious, while another hit the nose of the aircraft, disabling the flight path and stabilization systems. It hit the ground three seconds later.
Analysis: Unanswered questions
The 32-page board report goes into great detail about what happened on that fateful evening of January 7, 2014.
It looks into the circumstances prior to the tragedy, the checks that were made on the day, the background of those in the helicopter and the helicopter itself.
All of this is pulled together into the conclusion that bird strike was the reason why the Pave Hawk helicopter crashed into the beach at the popular nature reserve.
But despite it’s size, the report leaves several unanswered questions - and fails to address whether lessons can be learned or changes should be made in response to the crash.
Some of those questions include;
- Would the crash have happened if the December tidal surge had not occurred?
- Were the bird strike tests carried out on the day to prevent such a tragedy extensive enough?
- Have changes been made to how training operations such as these are run in light of the tragedy?
- Are there safety issues around the helicopter?
- Is it possible other helicopters operating on our coast could be impacted in the same way?
It may be some of these issues have been addressed behind closed doors and if that is the case people living along our coast will be keen to be made aware so they can be reassured such a tragedy won’t happen again.
According to the report, the Ministry of Defence had requested pilots avoid Blakeney Point Nature Reserve, by 500ft or two nautical miles.
But the storm surge in December 2013 caused “several flocks” to migrate southeast of the reserve towards Cley.
An assessment of the weather impact states: “On 5 December 2013 and 6 December 2013, the area surrounding the Blakeney Reserve experienced an unusual storm surge. Among other things, the storm surge resulted in the growth of vegetation that is undesirable to birds. Much of that storm surge affected the nearby area, as well as the reserve, which forced the birds to find alternate feeding and roosting sites.”
A briefing before the training mission informed pilots that the “bird watch condition” - which analyses the risk of bird strike - was “low” at the time.
The 48th Fighter Wing complied with all regulations regarding mission planning and supervision, according to the report.
The incident cost the US government $40,302,061 - around £29.6m.
In its conclusions the report found no evidence that mission planning, maintenance procedue, mechanical issues or pilot error contributed to the tragedy.