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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2001

Army copter pilot blamed in helicopter crash

• Graphic: Fatal collision of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters

By Mike Gordon
and William Cole
Advertiser Staff Writers

Helicopter 4 landed on its side, in a gulch about 90 yards away from where the other helicopter crashed. Six soldiers on board were killed.

Advertiser library photo

The top general at Schofield Barracks blamed a pilot and his battalion commander for a deadly Army helicopter crash in Kahuku even though a military investigation failed to find a cause of the accident.

Six soldiers died in the Feb. 12 collision, which involved two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters on a night training mission. Eleven other soldiers were injured in the accident.

But the official findings, which noted that everything about the exercise was within Army regulations, has angered some relatives. The families of the dead soldiers were briefed last month and received copies of the investigative findings, which the Army plans to release today.

Relatives of the dead soldiers said that even though Maj. Gen. James. M. Dubik found fault with Lt. Col. Paul R. Disney Jr., the battalion commander, other officers should also have been blamed and Disney should have gotten a harsher punishment.

Moreover, they told The Advertiser, the investigation was so inept that human remains were left at the crash site, where the widow of one soldier recovered part of a jawbone months later.

Blaming the pilot and his crew is "bogus and everyone knows it," said Clayton Montgomery, brother of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Greg Montgomery, the pilot in charge.

"But they have to put an Army face on and keep the Army clear," said Montgomery, who was an Army helicopter crew chief in the 1980s.

Dubik, who reviewed the investigation by Col. Terry Peck of Fort Rucker, Ala., said the loss of life required a thorough and sensitive investigation.

"This has been a trauma for our entire community," said Dubik, who heads the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army, Hawai'i.

All six casualties came from a helicopter carrying an Army Humvee in a sling beneath it. Both helicopters were trying to land about one mile mauka of the Kahuku Motocross Track.

Dubik concluded that intermittent heavy rain, winds, the heavy load, "the tight turn" to land, and constricted terrain all contributed. The direct cause was "the failure of the pilot" to keep his distance from the other Black Hawk involved "for reasons we will never know."

"A contributing factor, but not a direct cause of the accident, is the failure of the battalion commander to conduct adequate planning, risk assessment and rehearsals," Dubik said yesterday.

Dubik issued a letter of reprimand to Disney, 42, the former commander of the 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment. Disney finished his tour of duty at Schofield last month and was assigned to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

"The location of the heaviest load in the fleet and difficulty of the 180-degree turn under the conditions of that night were his planning error," Dubik said.

On the night of the collision, helicopters were carrying soldiers and equipment in three groups of four as part of a large North Shore exercise called "Lightning Thrust Warrior."

The helicopters that collided were part of the last group. The Black Hawk with fatalities was at the rear of the group. With 8,000 pounds of Humvee beneath it, it was carrying the heaviest load. It was just 37 pounds shy of its load limit, the Army confirmed yesterday.

All of the helicopters were supposed to make a pair of 90-degree turns and land with the wind behind them.

Peck's investigation states that the last helicopter, for unknown reasons, came out of position and flew along the right side of the formation. The next two helicopters ahead veered to their left to give him more room.

The fourth helicopter initiated a banked turn to the right and collided with the lead helicopter, which had already turned.

The main rotar blades of the lead Black Hawk severed part of the sling. Witness statements in the investigation say the fourth Black Hawk nosed over and landed in a gulch.

The investigation said marginal weather conditions made all aspects of the mission difficult but were not a direct cause of the crash. Neither was structural failure of the Black Hawk.

It also could not conclude what prompted the Black Hawk crew to swing out of formation because the helicopter has no cockpit recording device.

The specific cause of the accident "cannot be indisputably determined," Peck wrote.

The division already has made policy and procedure changes. An aviation brigade commander now must approve any 180-degree turns into a landing zone when helicopters fly in formation.

The aviation brigade commander's approval must be sought any time a helicopter other than the lead helicopter carries the heaviest load.

The family of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Montgomery, one of the two pilots killed, complained to Dubik about the investigative findings.

Thomas Montgomery, a retired Army pilot with 26 years of aviation experience, told Dubik he found the investigation results "deeply disturbing."

He was critical of a decision that put his son's Black Hawk in the last position where its heavy load would have made it difficult to slow the helicopter as it caught up with the lighter Black Hawks.

"The command set the conditions in which pilots could no longer control the situation — just like broken flight controls," Montgomery told Dubik in a letter.

Heather Barber, the widow of Black Hawk crew chief, Sgt. Thomas Barber, said the investigation was "incompetent from the very beginning." It was she who found the jawbone on the afternoon she took her two young sons to the crash site, the day before Father's Day.

The discovery prompted another search of the area. Army officials told Barber they found a wedding band, a credit card and other bones.

Until then, Army officials believed they had done a thorough search, with 90 soldiers walking the area, said Brig. Gen. Bill Caldwell, assistant division commander for operations and training.

"We thought we had found everything up there," he said.

The jawbone belonged to Greg Montgomery, according to an Army DNA test.

Not all relatives of those who died in the crash are critical of the investigation findings.

"The question I had was, were they following procedures that were in place at the time? And the answer (from the Army) was 'yes,'" said Greg Perry, brother of Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Perry, the other pilot on board.