CH-53E Accident and Personal Recollections of a Near Mishap
Contributor: Barry Fetzer
This week five Marines were killed in a CH-53E “Super Sea Stallion” crash in rough terrain in California. All five Marines were assigned to the “Flying Tigers” of Marine Heavy Helicopter (HMH) Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
This aviation history vignette is a bit long, but it’s worth honoring those who risk so much for our nation’s interests and to protect our fought hard liberties.
According to the US Naval Institute (USNI) News in an article by Heather Mongilio on February 9, 2024, quoted in its entirety below:
A CH-53E Super Stallion prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Boxer (LHD 4), Oct. 29, 2023. US Navy Photo
The Marine Corps has identified the five Marines who died after a CH-53E Super Stallion crash in California earlier this week.
The three pilots who perished are Capt. Benjamin Moulton, 27, Capt. Jack Casey, 26, and Capt. Miguel Nava, 28. The two crew chiefs are Lance Cpl. Donovan Davis, 21, and Sgt. Alec Langen, 23. All five were assigned to the “Flying Tigers” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The CH-53E helicopter left Creech Air Force Base in Nevada on Tuesday and was bound for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., where the helicopter squadron is based, USNI News previously reported. The Marines began a search for the Super Stallion after it was long overdue. The crew was undergoing flight training, according to the Marine Corps news release.
The helicopter crashed over Pine Valley, which is about 50 miles east of San Diego, Calif. The Marine Corps announced the death of the crew Thursday.
Davis, of Olathe, Kan., enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 2019. Langen, of Chandler, Ariz., enlisted in September 2017.
Moulton was commissioned in the Marine Corps through the University of Washington Naval ROTC program in March 2019. Casey was commissioned in the Marine Corps in May 2019. Nava was commissioned in the Marine Corps through the Naval Academy in May 2017.
“We have been confronted with a tragedy that is every service family’s worst fear,” Lt. Col. Nicholas Harvey, the commanding officer of HMH-361, said in the release. “Our top priority now is supporting the families of our fallen heroes, and we ask for your respect and understanding as they grieve. The Flying Tigers family stands strong and includes the friends and community who have supported our squadron during this challenging time. We will get through this together.”
This most recent of Marine Corps aviation mishaps reported on above should remind us all of the extraordinary risk Marines face in their normal, day-to-day duties and responsibilities, even when everything is done in accordance with procedures, rules, and regulations.
Of course, we won’t know what caused the CH-53E Super Sea Stallion to go down until the accident investigation is complete. And our humanity—our human frailties and failures—ensures that even when everything is apparently done correctly, accidents and tragedy can, do, and will occur. The only way to reduce risk to near zero would be to permanently hangar the aircraft.
This tragedy hits home for all friends and family members of Marines, including those of us who commanded Marines, and even in my case, where I was responsible for two of my own aircraft crashes that destroyed the machines and the American People’s millions of dollars investment in the aircraft. But in my case, though, blessedly lives were not destroyed…just the machines. Machines that can be replaced.
Both of my accidents were at sea, arguably (outside of combat) the riskiest of military aviation operations. The two crashes I had when I had command of the “Flying Tigers” of HMM-262 (Reinforced) were an AV-8B “Harrier” (material failure) and a CH-46E “Sea Knight” (pilot error and command—my—failure). Yes. My failure.
When one is in command, everything that happens…or fails to happen…is the commander’s responsibility, hence why command failure (that was me) was cited by the mishap board that investigated that CH-46E accident of mine…even though I was not in the aircraft when it crashed.
And the crash this week, reported above by USNI News, reminded me that I also, nearly, lost a CH-53E Super Sea Stallion. Interestingly that aircraft in my squadron was also a HMH-361 “Flying Tigers” CH-53E, an aircraft transferred to my “reinforced” squadron, the “Flying Tigers” of HMM-262 assigned to the USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3), like a small aircraft carrier, and deployed in WestPac (the Western Pacific). This near-mishap occurred both at sea and ashore.
The old Marine Corps’ saying , “Close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades” is often correct, but in this case, we also came achingly close to losing that Super Sea Stallion because of material failure. And Marines, again, were involved—as they always are—in risky business.
We were operating at night (early morning…around 0200 or 2:00am) aboard the USS Belleau Wood, several hundred miles northeast of Okinawa, Japan in the East China Sea. As CO of the squadron, I was in the LHA’s flight deck control tower called “Primary Flight” or “PriFly” along with my Operations Officer (who luckily happened to be a CH-53E pilot) and the men responsible for controlling flight deck operations, a Navy Officer called the “Air Boss” along with his assistant called the “Mini-Boss”. Like all spaces on military ships, PriFly is tiny and we couldn’t cram anybody else in PriFly.
The Air Boss during day operations. Courtesy Wikipedia.
We were being evaluated for our “special operations capable” designation, which meant we could conduct special operations like oil platform and ship “take downs”. This was a “lights out” special operation conducted in a moonless, overcast sky. The Air and Mini Bosses and I were equipped with night vision goggles (as were the flight crews and flight deck personnel) to monitor the flight deck operations. If you’ve never been in the middle of the ocean on a moonless, overcast night, it’s “darker than a well-digger’s ass”. We needed those night vision goggles.
One of our CH-53E Super Sea Stallions was hovering over the flight deck directly below PriFly preparing to take off on its assigned special operations mission and the Air Boss and I exclaimed at the same time “What the F…?” as sparks shot from the lower forward area of the aircraft. We then watched the nose gear of this aircraft separate from the aircraft, bounce once on the flight deck on the high-pressure tires, and then bounce over the port (left) side of the ship and into the sea. We could see the nose gear apparatus floating, tires up, away as the ship steamed ahead. The flight deck handing officer transmitted over his radio to the Air Boss, “Shit Boss! That 53 just lost its nose gear!”
The Air Boss explained to the CH-53E crew what we believed had happened and directed the Landing Signal-Enlisted (the LSE or the crew directing the aircraft on the flight deck) to remain in a hover. He asked the flight deck officer to assign a “blue shirt” (a plane handler) to proceed under the nose of the hovering aircraft (a very risky maneuver) to inspect the area of the CH-53E’s nose gear to confirm what had happened and inspect for any other damage.
After informing the ship’s captain of the situation, conferring together on the best procedure (there’s nothing in the procedures addressing this situation so we were operating “on the fly”) and convinced the aircraft was air-worthy and not able to land aboard the LHA without its nose gear without undue risk to the aircraft, crew and flight deck personnel, we directed the CH-53E crew to take off and return to Okinawa, hundreds of miles away, and land at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Today we’d pick up our palm-sized cell phones and make a call. Back then in the early 90’s, not a cell phone in sight. But we did have bulky, Marine-green, handheld tactical satellite phones with which we could make a call back to homebase.
We had a communication technician get the CO of HMH-361, our sister “Flying Tigers” CH-53E squadron based at MCAS Futenma on the satphone so I could talk to him.
The Marine Corps is a small service and it’s more often than not that we know and likely have served with our fellow commanding officers. As it turned out, the CO of HMH-361, LtCol Doug Ashton, was an old friend and someone with whom I had served in previous assignments.
“Doug, this is Barry,” I said. “Semper Fi (the Marine Corps’ motto: “Always Faithful”) old friend. One of your birds, Bureau (or side) Number 163072, just lost its nose gear hovering over the flight deck. The nose gear went overboard and is gone. The aircraft is returning to MCAS Futenma because it’s too risky to try to land the bird on the flight deck and, even if we could, it would clobber the flight deck if we landed it and couldn’t tow it off the spot.” Recommend you clear the barracks and bring the mattresses.” Doug responded, “Roger all Barry. I’m on it. Good luck and God Speed old friend. Semper Fi!”
Bring the mattresses? There is no official, written procedure for this situation to my knowledge. With its missing nose gear, the aircraft’s nose would need to be set down on a stack of mattresses from the racks (beds) of the Marines in their barracks at MCAS Futenma as the aircraft was being landed. The mattresses would need to be set up to the proper height and tied down with cargo straps to ensure the hurricane force winds of the CH-53E’s rotor down wash would not blow the mattresses all over hell’s half acre or worse: that they’d be blow up into the Super Sea Stallion’s rotor system, damaging or destroying the aircraft.
To finish this story, the CH-53E made it back to MCAS Futenma with just enough fuel to hover over and land on the tied-down mattresses hauled to the flight line by Marines. In less than a week, the aircraft had a new nose gear installed (corrosion and failure of a “Jesus Pin” (as we called it) that held the nose gear apparatus in place was found to be the culprit). The aircraft was back aboard the USS Belleau Wood and participating in our special operations-capable evaluation.
But not without a close call and a substantial amount of risk by a lot of people. And the most recent CH-53E accident outlined above that killed five Marines and destroyed a multimillion-dollar machine? There but by the Grace of God went I.
I could find no photos of a CH-53 landing on mattresses. But this one is “close” and isn’t a horseshoe or hand grenade. Several mattresses piled on the ground helped a medical helicopter with damaged gear make a safe landing in South Texas. Courtesy of the South-central Texas ClaimsJournal.com.