A U.S. military investigation blamed two Louisiana National Guard pilots for a March helicopter crash that killed 11 service members, the Guard said Thursday.
The Black Hawk helicopter went down during a training exercise off the coast of Florida near Pensacola, killing the crew of four Louisiana guardsmen as well as the seven U.S. Marines aboard. The Guard members were part of the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion based in Hammond.
Flying into a thick fog over the water on March 10, the pilots became disoriented and lost visual clues to keep their bearing, said Col. Pete Schneider, a Guard spokesman. They were unable to switch over to instruments used to verify the helicopter’s speed, altitude, location and pitch before the craft hit the Santa Rosa Sound, he said.
In the wake of the crash, the National Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command called for an investigation, and while the report has not yet been officially released, a partially redacted copy was leaked to a newspaper in Ireland, where one of the Marines was born.
The Irish Times published a story Wednesday based on the report, which Schneider called “very accurate.”
As quoted in The Times, the report places the blame on the flight crew, particularly National Guard Chief Warrant Officer George Wayne Griffin Jr., the pilot and air mission commander.
It also says Chief Warrant Officer David Strother, the copilot, was “hesitant to question” Griffin after he demonstrated he was disoriented. The report blamed both pilots for failing to assist each other in switching over to instruments, calling it “a breakdown of leadership at the crew level,” The Times said.
By flying into the low clouds and low visibility, the pilots “disobeyed a direct order,” The Times quoted from the report, though Schneider said Griffin himself was charged with deciding whether to take off. The rest of the crew could have voiced opposition, but none did, the colonel said.
Bob Strother, brother of David Strother, the copilot, has seen the military’s report and has questioned the investigators’ conclusions.
Strother conceded on Thursday that the crew made mistakes, but he said he thinks the investigators heaped the majority of the blame on the deceased members of the flight crew and downplayed the role of commanders on the ground and in the air traffic control tower.
Quoting from the report, The Times wrote Griffin “kept the weather planning and briefing task to himself, making it his responsibility to obtain a proper weather briefing and subsequently brief the other aircrew members.”
In addition to Griffin and Strother, the flight crew included Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich and Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron.
The training mission, which involved a second helicopter that turned back after takeoff and safely landed, required there be at least 3 miles of visibility and cloud cover of no lower than 1,000 feet, The Times reported. However, the night of the mission was cloudy, and visibility shrank to just 1 mile.
“During the run-up of both aircraft, individuals exhibited trepidation regarding the weather and the lack of ambient illumination. However, no one spoke up and questioned the wisdom to conduct the mission,” The Irish Times wrote, quoting the report.
“This is likely because of the high respect and overconfidence that the aircrews of both aircraft had in the decision-making and piloting abilities of (Griffin),” The Times reported.
The Black Hawks took off at 8:16 p.m., and “within minutes after takeoff, it appeared that sea fog rolled in, causing extremely reduced visibility,” The Times quoted the report as saying.
After takeoff, members of the flight crew began to raise concerns about the weather conditions, with Griffin remarking, “Yeah, it’s too dark to see the (expletive) water,” The Times quoted from the report.
Shortly before crashing five minutes after takeoff, the pilots tried to engage the autopilot, but the helicopter was “outside the required flight parameters, and the autopilot failed,” the report states, according to The Times.
Strother said the Irish newspaper’s account of the report was “right on,” but he believes the investigation was flawed. Specifically, he thinks the investigators began the case expecting to blame the flight crew and did not consider whether commanders in the military, such as those at Eglin Air Force Base where the helicopter launched, were to blame.
“When you arrive on the scene, you have a preconceived notion of what happened. … This report is very condensed on a preconceived notion,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues that are not in the report.”
He said he believes the crew members were eager to perform their duties and wondered why no one else stepped in to keep them out of the fog. “These guys are going to jump in. They’re going to fly. … That’s an asset. America wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have people like that,” he said. “(The flight crew) did make mistakes. I understand that. … There’s people there (on the ground) who could have said, ‘Stop’ … but they didn’t. … They still have a very important career.”
Schneider said Thursday it was unclear when the military would officially release the report. He said it must still be redacted before being sent to media outlets.
Other family members of the flight crew could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.