- Aircraft took off from U.S. Air Force base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, but crashed off Norfolk coast at 7pm last night
- The helicopter was a Pave Hawk, on a routine low-level flying exercise, when Norfolk residents hear ‘unusual’ sound
- One of the victims named as Captain Sean Ruane in online tributes, said to be a married father
- 400m cordon set up because helicopter contained live ammunition and the bodies of four dead on board overnight
- ‘Crash site itself is an area of debris on the marsh that’s about the size of a football pitch,’ police say
- Coroner to inspect site so bodies can be removed and U.S. Air Force personnel will then take over scene
- Marsh land is haven for all types of birds and investigators will consider if large waterfowl were sucked into engines
A U.S. military helicopter that crashed on a coastal nature reserve in north Norfolk killing all four crew could have been brought down by a bird strike, it emerged today.
Investigators are considering whether the HH-60G Pave Hawk may have lost power suddenly after one or more geese were sucked into its engines.
The aircraft, from the American air force base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, was out on a routine low-level flying exercise when it fell from the sky.
Residents of Cley-next-the-Sea heard a ‘heavy and very unusual’ sound overhead as the helicopter – which specialises in recovering troops from war zones – plummeted into flooded marshland.
The modified version of the U.S. Army’s Black Hawk crashed just after 7pm last night and the wreckage has spread across an area the size of a football pitch.
The bodies of the dead, who have not been officially named, were still on board the stricken aircraft this morning and will probably remain there until at least tomorrow.
But this afternoon one of the servicemen was named as Captain Sean Ruane in online tributes. He was an experienced pilot but it is not known if he was at the controls of the helicopter.
He had a young child and was married to wife Rachel in July 2011, it was claimed. Cpt Ruane’s cousin Brian Meyer tweeted: ‘My cousin died in a helicopter crash tonight. Pretty tore up about this.’
Later he posted: ‘Everyone: thanks for all the kindness. I’ll pass it along to his wife and child when we see each other soon.’
In a bizarre co-incidence, rescuers were tonight searching for a Navy helicopter missing off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, in the U.S., which disappeared with five crew on board.
A second helicopter from RAF Lakenheath, which was also in the area at the time of the crash and set down on the marshes to try to assist, is also being inspected on the shingle bank it landed on.
Police confirmed the aircraft was carrying live ammunition at the time of the crash, and have set up a 400 metre cordon around the site to protect the public, which could be in place until next week.
No adverse weather was reported leading to speculation that a bird strike might have caused the accident. Other theories include mechanical error or pilot error.
Craig Hoyle, Defence Editor, at Flightglobal said: ‘They were carrying out a low flying exercise in an area where there are lots of ducks and geese, which means a bird strike is possible.
‘Birds could definitely take an aircraft like this down, either by being sucked into the engine or even crashing through the canopy and knocking out the pilot’.
‘It could have just flown into the ground, but this is more unlikely’.
Paul Beaver, a pilot, told Sky news: ‘It’s a wonderful place for waterfowl it could have been a bird strike, night time birds do fly there.’
Speaking near the scene, Chief Superintendent Bob Scully of Norfolk Police said: ‘We have currently cordoned off about 400 square metres of the marshland area.
‘The crash site itself I would describe as an area of debris on difficult terrain on the marsh that’s about the size of a football pitch.
‘It’s not on the beach, although there are some bits of debris which are vulnerable to high tide.’
Mr Scully said it was too early to say what caused the crash.
‘At the present time the coroner, who is responsible for the investigation into the deaths, is carrying out a daylight assessment of the situation and is then arranging for the deceased to be removed from the site,’ he said.
He said the investigation would then be passed over to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and its counterparts in the US.
Mr Scully told the press conference: ‘The crashed aircraft did contain ammunition.
‘That ammunition is not of any great significance. It is bullets, if you will, but those are scattered about that area that I just described to you, and so the site is hazardous to members of the public and those people that would normally visit this area for birdwatching and other nature-interest activities, so for the present time we will be assisting and working with the military to ensure public safety by restricting access to that area.
BIRD STRIKES DOUBLED IN 3 YEARS
The number of birds colliding with aircraft has nearly doubled over the past few years, according to an air safety watchdog.
More than 2,200 reports such incidents were recorded last year by the Civil Aviation Authority – almost twice the 1,299 ‘bird strikes’ that were recorded in 2007.
The figures show that around three ‘significant’ collisions take place in Britain every week.
One of the most serious accidents involved an Airbus A321 flying out of Luton which was hit by a flock of birds shortly after take off, forcing the pilot to shut off an engine.
Another saw an Airbus A320 having to return to Heathrow shortly after being hit by a bird.
In 2009 a flock of birds destroyed both engines on a jet then forced to crash land in the Hudson, in New York.
The pilot to miss the George Washington Bridge by just 900 feet and landed safely on the river (above).
Mr Scully refused to speculate on whether the second helicopter had any involvement in the incident but said that, as it was nearby at the time, it made sense that it went to help.
He went on: ‘We are moving from a potential recovery operation to one of preserving the scene and carrying out an investigation.
‘As you would expect, we in the UK police have expressed our condolences to our US colleagues for the loss of some of their crew. It’s a desperately sad time. The US authorities have been responsible for notifying the next of kin of those who have sadly died.’
A second helicopter from RAF Lakenheath was also in the area at the time of the crash and set down on the marshes to try to assist, and remains at the scene while the investigation continues.
Inquiries into the cause of the crash, as well as the recovery of the wreckage and the second aircraft, are expected to take a number of days to complete, due to the geography and the munitions from the crashed helicopter.
A police spokesman said that an environmental assessment will also take place.
The cordon remains this morning and the A149 through Cley is closed.
Matthew Hancock, MP for West Suffolk which includes Lakenheath, said: ‘My heartfelt condolences are with the families and comrades of the airmen killed in the RAF Lakenheath helicopter crash.
‘Lakenheath is a close-knit community, and I know that this tragic loss of life will be deeply felt.
‘In Suffolk we never forget that the presence of the men and women of the 48th Fighter Wing helps guarantee Britain’s security and shared freedoms. This crash reminds us of the bravery of our allies, in training and in war.
‘I also wish to pay tribute to the emergency services, who had to confront both difficult terrain and the presence of live ammunition as they arrived at the scene of the crash.’
David Cameron also paid tribute to the dead at Prime Minister’s Questions today.
Details of the four crew members will not be released until next of kin have been informed and it is not believed that anyone in the surrounding area has been injured, police said.
Norfolk Constabulary Assistant Chief Constable Sarah Hamlin said: ‘I would like to pass on my condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of those US Air Force personnel who have sadly lost their lives in this tragic incident.
‘Emergency services, the military, partner agencies and volunteers have been working through the night to deal with this difficult situation on our coastline and I would also like to thank them for their professionalism and resilience.
‘As our inquiry moves on today and the recovery of the aircraft begins, I would urge the public to stay away from the area – the cordon and road closures are in place to allow our experts to carry out these processes safely and there is no risk to members of the public if this section of marshland is avoided.’
NATURE RESERVE STAFF RUSH TO HELP EMERGENCY SERVICES
Staff at the nature reserve close to where the Pave Hawk crashed gave emergency services advice when they first arrived on the scene.
The head of the wildlife trust which runs Cley Marshes reserve said he initially feared two people on the ground could have been killed.
Brendan Joyce, chief executive of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, told the Norwich Evening News: ‘I was concerned when I heard four people had lost their lives. The initial reports were it was an Apache helicopter, and they only fly two, so I wondered who else was involved.’
He added: ‘My understanding is that it came down on the shingle bank, so not on the actual reserve. We don’t know what the cause was at all.
‘It would have been dark. There would not have been any staff or volunteers on the site at the time.
‘I do know that our staff locally initially assisted in terms of advice to the emergency services.
‘Obviously the emergency services and military have taken over pretty quickly and have sealed the area off. We are not involved.
‘We are deeply shocked by it and our first thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives.’
Bernard Bishop, a Norfolk Wildife Trust warden based at Cley, said his house overlooks the crash site and he had never seen anything like it.
‘I heard the helicopter flying overhead and watched from my back garden,’ he said.
‘It was very quickly obvious something serious was wrong. The search and rescue crews quickly arrived and it was my job to escort them over the marsh.
‘The conditions are very difficult because the marsh has flooded twice in recent weeks so that’s hampering their efforts to recover the bodies and make the helicopter safe.
‘There’s only one track in and out of the crash site, which is also restricting their movements. It’s just awful. I’ve never known anything like and never seen so many people here at one time.’
Peter and Sue McKnestiey, who run Cookies crab shop in Salthouse, have been making cups of tea for the search teams.
Mrs McKnestiey said: ‘We were watching TV at about 7pm. We heard the helicopter come over very fast and very low.
‘I don’t know about engines but I am used to the sound of helicopters and this sounded very heavy and very unusual.
‘My gut instinct was there was something wrong. We’ve now heard four people have died and it’s just awful.
‘I keep hoping the helicopter I heard isn’t the one that crashed.
‘I think the whole village will be devastated when it realises what’s happened.’
There was speculation last night that a bird strike could have been responsible for bringing the aircraft down.
Helen Terry, 43, from Salthouse, near Cley, said: ‘We heard the helicopter fly over.
‘We assumed it was just heading out to sea for training exercises. It’s a daily occurrence and we’re quite used to it.
‘We live less than half a mile from where it’s happened and we didn’t hear any bang. The first we heard was when we saw emergency crews rushing to the area.
‘It’s something locals are used to and we’ve never had any safety concerns.’
Paul Beaver, a pilot, told Sky news: ‘It’s a wonderful place for waterfowl it could have been a bird strike, night time birds do fly there.’
SPECIFICATIONS OF THE U.S. AIR FORCE PAVE HAWK HELICOPTER THAT CAME DOWN ON A BRITISH BEACH
Primary Function: Personnel recovery in hostile conditions and military operations other than war in day, night or marginal weather
Contractor: United Technologies/Sikorsky Aircraft Company
Power Plant: Two General Electric T700-GE-700 or T700-GE-701C engines
Thrust: 1,560-1,940 shaft horsepower, each engine
Rotor Diameter: 53 feet, 7 inches (14.1 meters)
Length: 64 feet, 8 inches (17.1 meters)
Height: 16 feet, 8 inches (4.4 meters)
Weight: 22,000 pounds (9,900 kilograms)
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 22,000 pounds (9,900 kilograms)
Fuel Capacity: 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms)
Payload: depends upon mission
Speed: 184 mph (159 knots)
Range: 504 nautical miles
Ceiling: 14,000 feet (4,267 meters)
Armament: Two 7.62mm or .50 caliber machineguns
Crew: Two pilots, one flight engineer and one gunner
Unit Cost: $40.1 million (FY11 Dollars)
Initial operating capability: 1982
Inventory: Active force, 67; ANG, 17; Reserve, 15
THE MODIFIED ‘BLACK HAWK’ CHOPPER THAT COSTS $40M
The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter is an updated model of the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter and is primarily used to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile environments.
It is also used in civil search and rescue, medical evacuation, disaster response and humanitarian assistance.
The Pave Hawk is 64ft long and can travel at speeds of up to 184mph (159 knots).
The crew usually consists of two pilots, one flight engineer and one gunner. The unit cost of the Pave Hawk is $40.1 million.
Pave Hawk helicopters are designed for night-time low-level operations and have an automatic flight control system, night vision goggles, lighting and an infrared system.
The Pave Hawk was used after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 and in the aftermath of earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Today, Pave Hawks continue to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Prince Harry qualified as an Apache Aircraft Commander at Wattisham Airfield, also based in Suffolk. He carried out months of training at the base ahead of his assessment in July last year.
However, access has been limited recently due to coastal flooding, although the reserve’s visitor centre has remained open.
Cley Marshes is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest and best known nature reserve. It was purchased in 1926 making it the first Wildlife Trust reserve in the country.
The Cley Marshes website says its shingle beach and saline lagoons, along with the grazing marsh and reedbed support large numbers of wintering and migrating wildfowl and waders, as well as bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit.
Richard Kelham, chairman of Cley Parish Council, said: ‘It looks as though the military helicopter has come down in the middle of the bird reserve. The incident is very sad and there is a 400m cordon surrounding the area.’
Lieutenant Keenan Kunst, who is based at Lakenheath, confirmed that the helicopter that crashed was based there.
An RAF Lakenheath tweet sent later read: ‘We can confirm that one of our HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters was involved in an incident during a training mission outside Cley-Next-The-Sea.’
The RNLI said three of its boats were called out at about 7.45pm but were called back because the incident had happened on land.
A spokesman for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution said: ‘We were asked for three lifeboats to respond to reports that an aircraft had possibly ditched in the sea.
‘Lifeboats Wells, Sheringham and Cromer were launched at the request of the coastguard but were stood down when it was confirmed that the aircraft had come down over land.’
North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the crash was ‘utterly tragic’, adding: ‘My heart goes out to the families of the crew, and it is all the more difficult because I suspect the families are from a long way away and the news is just filtering through.
‘It is highly traumatic too for the local communities but it was quite close to the villages and could have been even more horrific if it came down on buildings.’
Norfolk Wildlife Trust said on their website they were ‘shocked’ to hear of the crash.
A statement said the crash happened ‘on the shingle bank at NWT Cley Marshes nature reserve, and our immediate thoughts are for the families of those who sadly lost their lives.
‘It is likely the reserve will be closed for at least tomorrow, Wednesday 8th January, while the incident is investigated.’ There have been several high-profile helicopter crashes in the UK over the last year, causing concern over safety.
The Pave Hawk accident comes less than two months after a police helicopter crashed into a pub in Glasgow.
Ten people, including three on board the Eurocopter EC135 helicopter, were killed when the aircraft fell from the sky “like a stone” onto the Clutha Vaults pub on November 29.
More than 100 people had been inside the establishment on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow city centre at the time.
Last month, manufacturer Eurocopter issued a worldwide safety alert after a fault was found with the fuel indication system on some EC135 models.
An investigation to establish the circumstances leading up to the accident is under way by Police Scotland and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch has also started investigating the wreckage.
Scotland had already suffered a helicopter disaster in August when an aircraft carrying oil rig workers ditched, killing four people in the North Sea off Shetland.
Two crew members and 16 passengers were on board the Super Puma L2 as it flew between an oil platform and Sumburgh Airport on Shetland.
The AAIB’s investigation has so far found no evidence of any technical failure in the helicopter.
It was the second major helicopter crash to take place in the North Sea in recent years after a Super Puma EC225 helicopter plunged into the water off the Aberdeenshire coast claiming 16 lives in April 2009.
A fatal accident inquiry began on Monday in Aberdeen to discover why the aircraft fell ‘like a torpedo’ into the sea.
The Aberdeenshire crash was itself preceded and followed by non-fatal accidents involving the EC225 model.
Last January, a helicopter crashed into a crane during rush hour in Vauxhall, south London.
Veteran pilot Pete Barnes died after his aircraft plunged to the ground 700ft below, killing Matthew Wood, 39, from Sutton, south London, as he walked to work.
Five people were taken to hospital and seven more were treated at the scene.
RAF LAKENHEATH: AN AMERICAN AIR FORCE BASE IN BRITAIN HANDED OVER TO U.S. AFTER WORLD WAR TWO
Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath, or RAF Lakenheath, is located near the town of Lakenheath in Suffolk, 4.7 miles north-east of Mildenhall.
It was first used for military purposes in the First World War but appears not to have been used much and was closed in 1918 when peace came.
In 1940 the site was selected by the Air Ministry as a decoy airfield for use in the Second World War. False lights, runways and aircraft diverted Luftwaffe attacks from nearby RAF Mildenhall.
In 1941 hard runways were laid out and the base was expanded before being used RAF flying units on detachment late in 1941.
After becoming fully operational, No. 149 Squadron RAF moved into Lakenheath in April 1942 and remained until mid-1944 when the squadron moved to RAF Methwold.
In April 1947, RAF Bomber Command returned to Lakenheath and had the runways repaired, resurfaced, and readied for operations by May 1948.
In November 1948, with the Cold War now in full swing, operational control of RAF Lakenheath was transferred from the Royal Air Force to USAFE.
The first USAFE host unit at RAF Lakenheath was the 7504th Base Completion Squadron. The squadron was elevated to an Air Base Group in January 1950, and to a Wing in September 1950.
Control of RAF Lakenheath was allocated to Third Air Force at South Ruislip Air Station, which had command of SAC B-29 operations in England.
By 1950, Lakenheath was one of three main operating bases for the U.S. Strategic Air Command in the UK, the others were RAF Marham and RAF Sculthorpe.
A succession of bombardment squadrons and wings, 33 in all, rotated through Lakenheath, the B-29s giving way to the improved B-50 Superfortresses and then, in June 1954, B-47 Stratojets.
Currently, the host wing is the 48th Fighter Wing (48 FW), also known as the Liberty Wing.
Source : Daily Mail