Spate of U.S. Military Chopper Crashes Likely Unrelated

14 troops have been killed — six of them in combat — in chopper crashes in the past month, but officials say there's no connection

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Helicopters are complicated machines, as these Army mechanics tending to UH-60s in Afghanistan make clear.

There has been a rash of military chopper crashes recently — including a so-called “hard landing” that killed a U.S. soldier late Wednesday in Georgia — but Pentagon officials and helicopter experts say they’re random, coincidental occurrences.

“We’re always worried about aircraft mishaps, and certainly folks losing their lives and limbs to these things,” Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday. “I don’t think we’re seeing any trends between these — these are just tragic mishaps.”

The four crashes over the past month have killed 14 troops. Officials doubt there’s a common thread because the crashes involved two different kinds of helicopters. And while three of the crashes involved the Pentagon’s tried-and-true UH-60 Black Hawk, they were three different versions — and one of them apparently went down due to enemy fire.

The latest crash happened when a special-ops MH-60 Black Hawk hit the ground hard near Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia following a routine training flight. It belonged to the Night Stalkers — the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment. That’s the same unit (and kind of helicopter) that flew Navy SEALs into Pakistan in 2011 on the daring night-time raid that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden.

A “hard landing” is whenever a helicopter lands with a vertical drop of more than about six feet (2 m.) per second, and is caused by a variety of things, including weather, mechanical problems, and pilot error. It generally means the pilot or pilots retained some level of control of the aircraft as it touched down. While there are all sorts of cushions built into most choppers, their effectiveness shrinks the greater the vertical speed upon contact with the ground.

Wednesday’s accident follows three other recent fatal crashes:

— Three Navy men perished when their MH-53E Sea Dragon crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 20 miles off the Virginia coast Jan. 8.

— Four Air Force personnel died after their Pave Hawk HH-60 crashed on Britain’s North Sea coast Jan. 7.

— Six U.S. soldiers died Dec. 17 in southern Afghanistan when enemy fire forced their UH-60 Black Hawk down.

Bumblebees defy the physics of flight, helicopter pilots like to say, and they add that their choppers do, too. Even in peacetime, a helicopter is a Rube Goldberg-like contraption of parts — rotor blades, fuel systems, driveshafts, hydraulic lines, gearboxes among them — flying in close formation. A problem anywhere in a helicopter’s mechanics can quickly turn into a problem everywhere.

War only makes it worse. Unlike their fixed-wing brethren, helicopters tend to be slow, which on the battlefield is another word for vulnerable. Beyond that, they tend to fly low, hugging the contours of the terrain in what pilots called nap-of-the-earth flight. The tactic certainly reduces the helicopter’s exposure to enemy fire from below, but it doesn’t eliminate it. Helicopter pilots speak warily of “golden BBs” that can bring down their bird if they hit the right spot.

Last month’s deadly crash in Afghanistan apparently happened after fire from the ground — either an explosion of some kind, or gunfire — did enough damage. Initially, U.S. military officials suggested some kind of mechanical failure most likely doomed the aircraft, but a subsequent investigation showed that initial belief to be wrong.

Likewise, Thursday’s Pentagon assurances that the crashes are unrelated could need revising once investigations into them are wrapped up. “If there are trends or strings you can pull between them, those will be pretty self-evident,” Kirby said. “I’m not aware of any right now.”