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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Poor visibility, pilot blamed in Vietnam copter crash

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

A Pacific Command investigation into an April 7 helicopter crash that killed seven U.S. servicemen in Vietnam found that deteriorating weather conditions, poor visibility and the Vietnamese pilot's failure to "properly react" to those conditions were predominant factors in the accident.

The team of seven Americans and nine Vietnamese were visiting proposed sites for the recovery of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War when the Russian-built MI-17 helicopter struck Am Mountain in central Quang Binh province.

All 16 people aboard were killed. Autopsy reports said the cause of death was blunt-force trauma from the crash on the fog-shrouded mountain. A subsequent fire caused extensive damage to the helicopter.

Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, based at Camp Smith, regularly conducts recovery missions to Southeast Asia.

"This tragic accident is a deep loss for Pacific Command and the American and Vietnamese people," the command said in releasing the results of the investigation.

The Americans from Joint Task Force-Full Accounting killed in the crash were: Army Lt. Col. Rennie M. Cory Jr., Detachment 2 commander; Army Lt. Col. George D. Martin, incoming Detachment 2 commander; Air Force Maj. Charles E. Lewis, Detachment 2 deputy commander; and Air Force Master Sgt. Steven L. Moser and Air Force Technical Sgt. Robert M. Flynn, both JTF-FA linguists.

Army Sgt. First Class Tommy L. Murphy, part of Central Identification Laboratory Hawai'i, also was among the casualties, along with Navy Hospital Corpsman Chief Pedro J. Gonzales, with the Consolidated Divers Unit in San Diego.

The team was doing advance work for a recovery mission that included the crash site of Air Force Capt. Lawrence Evert's F-105D, which went down in 1967. Remains believed to be those of Evert were repatriated Oct. 5. Then-President Clinton visited the site last year.

During a flight to a recovery site April 7, the MI-17 was flying south when the crew made a request to descend for a landing at Dong Hoi airfield. The aircraft flew into thick and quickly moving fog, and while attempting to ascend above it, the pilot hit Am Mountain more than 60 feet from its peak, officials said.

The "collateral" investigation conducted by Army Lt. Col. David Shaffer found that the flight crew was very experienced, and the pilot in command had more than 3,300 flight hours and was considered the Vietnamese military's best at maneuvering the MI-17.

There were no witnesses. No fault was found with the aircraft or maintenance.

Officials said the cause of the crash cannot be determined with certainty, but the investigation executive summary said: "The Vietnamese accident investigation and the PACOM-directed collateral investigation confirm the primary cause of the accident was the pilot's failure to properly react as the aircraft descended from a scattered cloud level into an unforecasted, rapidly forming thick layer of fog."

Shaffer recommended the removal of internal fuel tanks during JTF-FA use of the MI-17, a workhorse helicopter in Vietnam. Officials said the internal tanks contributed to the post-crash fire.

More than 5,000 MI-8/MI-17 helicopters have been produced and are in service in more than 60 countries.

Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of Pacific forces, placed a moratorium on U.S. use of MI-17s in Southeast Asia following the crash, but lifted the ban June 20.