WASHINGTON – A Navy helicopter with a crew of five went down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia coast on Wednesday.
Navy officials say that one crew member is missing and four others were rescued from the 42-degree waters. One of the crew died hours after being pulled from the water 20 miles offshore.
The Navy says a second crewmember has also died.
The two other surviving crewmembers remained hospitalized in Norfolk Wednesday evening.
None of the crew has been identified. The Navy said the identity of the dead crew member would be released 24 hours after their family was notified.
Two other members of the crew were in stable condition Wednesday afternoon; the other was to have surgery, the Navy said.
“Today has definitely been a tough day on all of us,” Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, said at a news conference. “Our heartfelt prayers go out to the families and loved ones of those killed and injured in today’s crash.”
The chopper was conducting a routine training operation when the crash occurred. The cause was not immediately known.
According to a statement from the office of the commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, the MH-53E Sea Dragon chopper is assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, based at Naval Station Norfolk Chambers Field.
Navy officials say that at about 10:45 a.m. a distress call came from the helicopter and it crashed within the next few minutes. They also say a second MH-53 chopper on the training mission was the first to respond and was joined within minutes by a Coast Guard rescue team.
The Coast Guard cutter Shearwater and two MH-60S helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Support Squadron 28 are conducting the search and rescue.
According to the Naval Air Systems Command website, the aircraft performs airborne mine countermeasures and onboard delivery missions. It holds a crew of up to eight, including two pilots, and is capable of speeds over 170 mph.
The helicopter measures 99 feet long and more than 28 feet tall. It weighs 69,750 pounds.
In July 2012, two crew members were killed when the same model helicopter crashed into a canyon in the Gulf nation of Oman while lifting a downed aircraft.
According to a Navy investigation obtained by The Virginian-Pilot in November, the crash of the $50 million helicopter revealed a series of problems within the Navy Sea Dragon program, which is headquartered in Norfolk. In that specific incident, the report blamed the crew for skipping preflight safety checks and for failing to develop a concrete plan for how and when to abort the mission.
But Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, told the newspaper following the investigation that the Navy has invested millions of dollars to upgrade and better maintain its remaining 29 Sea Dragon airframes since the crash, including adding more than 100 maintenance personnel to the Norfolk-based squadrons.
The Navy had planned to phase them out beginning in the mid-2000s, but kept the Sea Dragons flying because the service had no viable replacement.
At the news conference Wednesday, Flannery said he doesn’t have any concerns about the safety of the aircraft.