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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Strike on Iraq: British Royal Navy Choppers Collide over Persian Gulf

Aired March 22, 2003 - 02:12   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to keep the picture up from the 7th Calvary, as we go to Chris Plante at the Pentagon, because we just got word within the last hour that two Navy Sea King helicopters -- those are British helicopters -- crashed in mid-air. We understand one American was on board.
We want to go to the Pentagon now, while we continue to look at these pictures from deep inside Iraq.

Chris -- what can you tell us about the crash of this Navy Sea King helicopter?

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're hearing now is that two British Navy Sea King -- H3 Sea King helicopters were taking off from a British ship operating in the Persian Gulf a very short time after leaving the deck of the ship in darkness at about 4:30 a.m. local time. The two helicopters apparently collided within sight of the ship, very close to the ship. Search and rescue helicopters were launched almost immediately. Divers -- search and rescue divers in the water, again just moments later.

But apparently at this point, no survivors -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And how many were on board, Chris?

PLANTE: Three British crewmembers aboard each helicopter, plus one American aboard one of the helicopters. It's unclear who the American was, whether he was uniform military or civilian. Unclear right now what he was doing aboard the helicopter, but we have it fairly authoritatively here at this point that there was one American, there were six Brits -- three crewmembers aboard each helicopter, again crashing within sight of the helicopter -- of the ship rather.

And regardless of how quickly the search and rescue divers got to the location, collisions of helicopters are almost always fatal like this -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, do you know what the mission was?

PLANTE: We do not know what the mission was. Officials here say that, A, they're not aware of exactly what sort of mission the helicopters were involved in. And, B, if they were aware, they probably wouldn't tell us anyway.

But it may be a consideration it's possible that the helicopters, depending on how close to shore they were and depending on what sort of mission they were involved with, may have been flying, for example, without their aviation running lights. They may have been operating in night vision goggles. A lot of these details we still just donít have yet.

COSTELLO: This is the second helicopter crash that we've heard about, a helicopter crash that didn't happen because of enemy fire. How dicey is it to fly these things?

PLANTE: Well, helicopters are sort of considered to be inherently dangerous. Helicopter pilots in the military have a lot of jokes about the fact that these things just weren't meant to fly. They are dangerous. Helicopter accidents are not very uncommon in the military, particularly in high-stress situations like this, but even in training exercises casualties, fatalities from helicopter crashes are not at all uncommon. The military is very well-versed in this sort of tragedy.

COSTELLO: Yes, Chris, we have heard dust from the desert interferes with the workings of the helicopters, and as you said, it's very stressful to fly under these conditions.

PLANTE: It is, and we're talking about pre-dawn hours here. Again, without knowing what sort of mission they were on or how close to shore they may have been, it's difficult to say what the specific circumstances may have been. But helicopters collide and bad things happen, there are no two ways about it.

There was also that crash yesterday, of course, of the U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, which is a heavier troop transport helicopter, in which eight British troops also killed and four U.S. Marines killed in that one -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right, good enough. Chris Plante reporting live from the Pentagon this morning. We'll check back with you.

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