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Two Marines Dead, Five Injured in Helicopter Crash

Aired January 20, 2002 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right to that helicopter crash. Two Marines are dead and five are injured, two of them critically after their CH-53E helicopter went down near the Bagram airfield. CNN's Michael Holmes is there.

Michael, what's the latest?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Miles, good evening to you from the Bagram airbase where I can tell that two of these helicopters, CH-53E Super Stallions, took off from the Bagram airbase about 8:00 a.m. local time. They were on a resupply mission to give supplies to troops in the field, U.S. troops in the field.

I can tell you that this helicopter is a workhorse for the U.S. military. It is a big helicopter. It can carry 55 fully equipped troops and/or it can carry 60,000 kilograms of equipment. As I said, on this occasion, it was a resupply mission to troops in northern Afghanistan.

It experienced trouble and had what was being described by the U.S. military as a hard landing about 60 kilometers south of where I am now in mountainous terrain. There were seven Marines on board with those supplies. All of them were effected by this crash, as you just said, two of the Marines were killed outright, five others were injured.

I can tell you we had a briefing from the U.S. military here and the five Marines who were hurt, two are in critical condition, two are in serious condition, one has minor injuries. We are told, however, that all were stabilized. They were brought -- their rescue mission was mounted and U.S. forces went out to this mountainous location, but they were able to land the helicopter, get the dead and injured onboard.

They brought them back here to the Bagram airbase where there is a very well equipped hospital and those injured were treated here. They were then flown out on a C-130 transport to a higher-grade medical facility where they are at the moment. And I can tell you that they are in stable condition according to the U.S. military.

I spoke earlier with Captain Tom Bryant and about the helicopters involved. Let's listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CAPT. TOM BRYANT, U.S. ARMY: No actions have taken place in terms of any further safety...

QUESTION: What sort of investigation is underway at the time, do you know?

BRYANT: We are simply trying to determine the cause of the incident.

QUESTION: If it happened just south of here, isn't that close to Kabul?

BRYANT: I'm not sure of the name of the village that it was near. So I've just got that it was 60 -- approximately 60 kilometers, generally in a southerly direction from here.

QUESTION: In the mountains?

BRYANT: I would have to look at a map, sir, which I've not had a chance to do yet.


HOLMES: And needless to say, Miles, an investigation is underway, operating out of where the U.S. is based. U.S. forces are based, which is here at Bagram. I can tell you it's about 50 kilometers outside of Kabul and this -- I should also point out that this is the second incident involving a Super Stallion helicopter.

It was only in December that another one experienced what military officials call a hard landing. On that occasion, the four Marines onboard unhurt, not the case today with this latest accident. A tragedy for U.S. military officials here. They say that losing men in this way, on something like a supply mission, just makes things worse -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Michael, at this juncture, have they ruled out the possibility that this particular helicopter came under fire?

HOLMES: At this stage, Captain Tom Bryant, who we heard from earlier, didn't rule out anything. He said the case of this hard landing, as he put it, is unknown, an investigation is under way. What caused this helicopter to go down in mountainous terrain like that is not known at this stage. Miles, very earlier days as you'd understand.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Michael Holmes at the Bagram airfield, thank you very much -- Catherine.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to go to the Pentagon now for the latest on this, the third fatal crash of the U.S. military aircraft during this war in Afghanistan. CNN's Jeff Levine standing by.

Good morning, Jeff, what's the latest from there? JEFF LEVINE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Catherine. Here's a quick review of the crashes of U.S. military planes and helicopters over the last four months of Operation Enduring Freedom. Now, let's go back to October. This is the first one. It was a Black Hawk helicopter. It went down in Pakistan. That was on October 19. Two Green Berets onboard were killed in that incident. Then, just last December, a CH-53E Super Stallion made a hard landing northwest of Kandahar. That was in a desert region. This is the same type of helicopter that crashed yesterday, but in the Kandahar incident, none of the four Marines onboard was actually injured.

Moving on, then on January 9 of this year, a KC-130 tanker went down in western Pakistan. There were seven Marines onboard that four- engine plane and they were all killed. Finally, in this latest situation, another CH-53E made a hard landing in a remote region of northern Afghanistan and as you heard, seven Marines were onboard, two killed, two critically injured. The chopper was one of two, Catherine, that was a resupply mission -Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Any word from the Pentagon, any reaction to what happened? And can you tell us a little bit more about the Super Stallion? We know this is the second crash involving one.

LEVINE: Well, as you heard Michael Holmes say, this is basically a workhorse of the U.S. military. It's a large chopper and it's been one of the mainstays of the effort in Operation Enduring Freedom. As of yet, we don't have a definitive word, Catherine, as to what occurred in this incident. However, Pentagon spokespeople are here today and they'll be going over the findings from that crash. And of course, as soon as we have anything definitive from them, we will bring it to you.

CALLAWAY: All right, we'll look forward to it. Thank you. CNN's Jeff Levine at the Pentagon. Thanks, Jeff.

O'BRIEN: Now, let's get perspective on this chopper going down. Joining us from Washington for that is a familiar face to you all, our military analyst, retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd.

General Shepperd, good to have you with us again.


O'BRIEN: The military, this morning, is calling it a hard landing. Is that a bit of PR euphemism or is there something there that we should be listening to?

SHEPPERD: No, it's probably they don't know yet what caused the landing. It was a hard landing indeed, as the report. On the other hand, what caused it? It could be maintenance. It could be enemy action. It could be that he was trying to land in the very dangerous area and something went wrong. These are real, real dangerous operations even though it's a great helicopter, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Now, the CH-53E, the Super Stallion, is not an attack helicopter. It transports troops. Does it have the capability of defending itself and if in fact it did come under fire, what sort of countermeasures does it have?

SHEPPERD: Yeah, it does have countermeasures onboard to include infrared flares, that type of thing. It also has, if equipped, two door gunners to defend itself. A crew of six, reportedly seven onboard this airplane. It's a real workhorse. It's the CH-53E, the follow on to the D, called the Super Stallion. It can lift up to 16 tons. It's got range onboard. It's refuelable.

This was the airplane that took people out of the Mogadishu -- the Mogadishu capital during the recent action there. It's been involved in many operations all over the world. A very good safety record, but these operations are very dangerous and it's really sad when these people are on their way out and back to their ships to see something like this happen.

O'BRIEN: Let's look at the big picture here for a moment. It's kind of early on this one, but just in general, when you consider the number of sorties that have occurred since this war in Afghanistan began, compare it against the number of fatalities. We had the Black Hawk search and rescue helicopter that went down very early on, the C- 130 crash, the refueler, which might in fact, have been a C-130 that refuels these CH-53s and now the CH-53. Would you consider that a fairly good record given the number of missions?

SHEPPERD: I'd consider it a good record. Of course, any lose is absolutely tragic, but I'd consider it a very good record especially in the austere conditions out there.

Now, for helicopters, which always fly low in the dangerous areas down there, landing is a particularly difficult thing because we have the situation, which we call brown out, which particularly in Afghanistan, dust is kicked up and can really obscure your vision when you're trying to feel those last few feet and dropping a helicopter in the last few feet can cause significant damage there to the whole thing.

So I'd say the safety record overall, for the number of sorties and hours flown, is absolutely astounding, especially since a lot of it has been done at night in mountainous terrain and bad weather.

O'BRIEN: You know when you mention that brown out, it hearkens back to that failed rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages in the desert, the so-called Desert I incident, which was exacerbated by that so -- that condition where the dust crops up and completely disorients the pilot. What can be done about that?

SHEPPERD: Well, basically, training is what it amounts to. But again, despite your training, what you do when you lift off is you're using visual references and you're also using your instruments. And you have to switch back and forth between visual references and instruments to do this safely and sometimes things can go wrong. It can be human error involved, but it's a dicey situation. We're well trained and we repeat this repeatedly. You know, the Scott O'Grady rescue was carried out by CH-53 helicopters, very dangerous, in the middle of enemy fire at night in a strange terrain. What these guys do is just plain dangerous and they're very good at it, but things go wrong occasionally.

O'BRIEN: General Shepperd, we have spent a lot of time talking, since this all began, about the stinger missiles, which might left over and in the hands of people opposed to the United States effort there. Would you rule that out in this case, given what we've heard about this scenario? Could this have been any sort of heat seeking, ground-to-air missile attack?

SHEPPERD: Well, I wouldn't rule it out. But on the other hand, the Pentagon has given no indication that that's the case. Now, there are stinger missiles in Afghanistan. There's also other types of missiles, the SA-7s and other versions that are available on the black market. So it's hard to say, but right now, no indications that was the case here.

O'BRIEN: Major General Don Shepperd, our military analyst. Thank you very much as always -- Catherine.

SHEPPERD: A pleasure.




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