Editor's note: This story was posted at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and updated at 8:30 p.m.
FORT HOOD — Pilot error caused the deaths of four First Army Division West soldiers involved in a November Black Hawk helicopter crash, concluded an internal unit report by First Army released on Wednesday.
The four soldiers were aboard a UH-60 helicopter when it went down sometime after 5:49 p.m. Nov. 23, in the northeast portion of the Fort Hood training area. The soldiers were Sgt. 1st Class Toby Childers, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephen B. Cooley, Sgt. 1st Class Jason M. Smith and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael F. Tharp.
The pilot in charge at the time executed a “break turn” according to the First Army 15-6 internal investigation, which exceeded the aircraft’s maximum angle of bank and caused the aircraft to stall. The helicopter quickly lost altitude and the crew was unable to recover before the helicopter’s tail hit a tree, causing catastrophic damage to the airframe. The resulting crash was responsible for the death of all four crew members.
The aircraft belonged to 7th Squadron, 158th Aviation Regiment, with a crew assigned to 2nd Squadron, 291st Aviation Battalion, 120th Infantry Brigade.
In essence, whichever crew member was piloting at the time attempted a maneuver he was unprepared to recover from in the event of failure. A break turn is a combat maneuver pilots are required to train on for certification prior to going into combat. The training requirement is known as TASK 2127 “Perform Combat Maneuvering Flight.”
The report concluded the maneuver was attempted at 120 knots, or approximately 138 miles per hour, with a 60 degree bank at 300 feet above ground. The aircraft did not have sufficient altitude to recover.
All documents furnished by the First Army’s Office of the Staff Judge Advocate contained redacted names in the summary report released exclusively to the Daily Herald. The official report by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center in Fort Rucker, Ala., is not yet available.
The investigation determined weather did not contribute to the accident, although low-light conditions may have impaired the crew’s ability to see obstacles. The crew completed all mission approval and risk mitigation procedures before departing, and there is no evidence any crew member was impaired, according to the report. After examining maintenance records, the report concluded the Black Hawk was mechanically sound prior to the flight.
While the investigation identified several record keeping problems at both 7-158th and 2-291st, none of the issues was determined to have contributed to the accident.
The investigation also examined “flight following and overdue aircraft procedures” at Fort Hood, the report stated. Lost contact procedures did not apply to the accident because both crew and relevant agencies followed flight following procedures as were required. The overdue aircraft procedures at the time were not properly followed, however. There was a significant delay in initiating a ramp check and further delay in launching Search and Rescue operations, according to the report.
The Fort Hood Installation Operations Center seemed to be unaware they were required to launch Search and Rescue. The report stated that post procedures have since been examined and updated to ensure future compliance.
The investigation makes several recommendations to improve pre-accident procedures, pre-flight procedures and flight following procedures. It also recommends establishing additional in-flight safety controls for certain training flights.
The cockpit voice recorder of the aircraft showed the pilots failed to communicate with the crew chiefs, who typically assist the pilots in clearing obstacles on the ground the pilots may not see, the report stated.
A toxicology report for at least two of the crew members tested negative for any form of alcohol or drug substance. The reports for the other two members was not available, according to the report.
First Army finished gathering all evidence on Feb. 19, 2016, and reached its conclusion on Feb. 24, 2016, according to the supplemental investigation report, recorded on a Department of the Army Form 1574. The delay in releasing the report was due to the number of people who had to approve the report, according Army regulation.
According to the investigating officer in the report, whose name was redacted, jurisdiction for the incident was released to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey N. Colt, commander of First Army Division West, to address any possibly prosecution regarding discrepancies with the 2nd Battalion, 291st Aviation Regiment leadership. No information about potential grounds for grounds for prosecution was given in the report.
More information will be available at kdhnews.com on Thursday and in Friday’s Killeen Daily Herald.
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