Army still mourns victims of last year's copter crash
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
Andrew MacDonald, a rambunctious blond, blue-eyed child who loves to ride his bike and jump on his great-uncle's trampoline, turns 4 tomorrow.
His mom had a party planned at Chuck E. Cheese over the weekend and a small family gathering on his birthday. But at what should be a time of celebration, Ann MacDonald grieves. Her husband and Andrew's dad, Army Sgt. Bob MacDonald, won't be there.
The 28-year-old soldier died a year ago on his son's birthday when two Army helicopters collided in the night over Kahuku. MacDonald had tried to get the day off for his son's party.
The crash was Hawai'i's own "Black Hawk Down": Six soldiers were killed and 11 others injured in one of the worst Army training accidents in the state's history.
A year later, Ann MacDonald, like other families who suffered a loss, struggles to pick up the pieces. Getting by on Social Security and her husband's VA benefits, the California woman relies on therapy, family support and her love for her son.
A bronze plaque and monument for those who died has been put up at Wheeler Army Airfield, and a memorial ceremony for family is planned tomorrow, the anniversary of the crash.
"Nothing has been easy," MacDonald said. "(But) what's hardest for me is my son not having a father that's the most devastating thing throughout all of this. I can deal with what happens to me, but watching him grow up without a father who was really proud to have a son is hardest for me."
The Army has struggled as well with the loss of its soldiers; disciplinary action taken against a battalion commander for failing adequately to plan for and assess the risks of the mission; and bitter complaints by some family members that pilots and crew became scapegoats.
All six soldiers killed were in a UH-60 Black Hawk carrying a Humvee in a sling beneath it. The heavy chopper, last in a group of four, had lagged behind, then overtook the lead helicopter as the group approached the landing zone at 7:40 p.m.
The sling hit the lead helicopter's rotor, shattering its blades and sending pieces knifing through the air. With the Humvee swinging beneath it like a pendulum, the trailing chopper nosed over and crashed into a gulch.
The lead chopper dropped to the ground from 200 feet, landing upright. Some soldiers on board suffered back compressions. One carrying a heavy mortar base in his lap broke both legs.
The training mission involved flying from the East Range of Schofield Barracks to the landing zone, about a mile mauka of the Kahuku Motocross Track, to drop off equipment and personnel. The site had been used many times for air assault training.
Although a military investigation failed to find a cause for the accident, Maj. Gen. James M. Dubik, commanding general of the 25th
Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army Hawai'i, concluded that intermittent rain, winds, the heavy load, a tight landing turn and constricted terrain all contributed to the crash.
The direct cause was "the failure of the pilot" to keep his distance from the other Black Hawk "for reasons we will never know."
"A contributing factor, but not a direct cause of the accident" was the failure of battalion commander Lt. Col. Paul R. Disney Jr. to conduct "adequate planning, risk assessment and rehearsals," Dubik said.
Disney, former commander of the 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, received a letter of reprimand the most severe administrative action Dubik said was available to him. The investigation found no criminal negligence.
The findings were released in August. Clayton Montgomery, whose brother, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Greg Montgomery, was the pilot in charge of the helicopter in which everyone died, said blaming the pilot and crew "is bogus, and everyone knows it."
"They have to put an Army face on it and keep the Army clear," said Montgomery, a former Army helicopter crew chief.
Now, as then, the family's opinion is the same.
"I think more should have happened to (Disney) for his serious mistakes," said Sharon Montgomery, the dead pilot's mother. "... First of all, he was those men's commander, and first and foremost he should have protected them."
When Dubik announced publicly the results of the investigation, Ann MacDonald was there.
"My husband died for reasons we will never know?" she asked then. "That is totally unacceptable."
But now, as then, answers remain elusive.
"Little things added up in this mission," noted Chief Warrant Officer 3 Grady L. Green, a pilot in an earlier formation of helicopters, in an affidavit filed after the crash. Two days before, the company safety officer had tried to call a "time-out" on training, and Disney had told him to "work out our problems within the company," Green said.
"Mission accomplishment on every tasking was the motto," Green said. "I truly feel that none of the air crews was set up for success for this mission or any other based on the tempo and command pressure."
Disney, in his affidavit, said he had made clear that anyone could call time-out on training. No one did. Disney finished his tour of duty at Schofield last summer and was assigned to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
A number of changes have been made by the 25th Division to prevent another such accident:
- Mandating approval by the aviation brigade commander, rather than a battalion commander, for an aircraft other than the lead in a formation to carry the heaviest load.
- Requiring rehearsal of alternate flight routes.
- Requiring a consolidated written risk assessment for all battalion air assault operations.
- Mandating aviation brigade commander approval to conduct a 180-degree turn for flight formations and final approach during landing.
- Keeping a written record of how much rest flight crews get until the field mission is completed.
Results of a separate investigation by the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., are not yet available.
Other changes have been made. An aviator with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, who asked not to be identified because he did not have clearance to speak on the subject, said, "As far as command climate goes, for our battalion it's completely different (now). It's like night and day."
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Martin T. Carpenter, who took over the job around July, "is what we needed," the soldier said. "(He's) very level-headed, and he listens to all of his people before making a decision."
"Now we can say no, which was an unheard-of word before. They look real hard at doing things in three or four different ways, and the best way to execute before going out on a mission."
Among other positive changes, the soldier said, was stricter minimum weather conditions needed to fly a training mission.
The Army did not respond to a request last week for comment on the crash.
MacDonald, who lives in Alta Loma, Calif., where she and her husband met, wishes the changes had been made earlier. "If they were in effect at the time of the crash, this probably wouldn't have happened," she said.
But not all families are willing to assign blame.
Greg Perry, the brother of Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Perry, the other pilot in the Black Hawk in which all died, said he is aware of the danger inherent in flying helicopter assault training missions at night and in close proximity. When Army officials arrived to discuss the crash, he asked if training regulations had been followed, "and the answer I got was yes."
"I'm happy they have additional procedures that they follow to try to prevent an accident like this from happening again," Perry said. "But if anybody thinks soldiers aren't going to die in training accidents in the future, they are wrong."
George Perry's death hit close to home: His wife, Lovie, and two sons, Michael, 15, and Daniel, 11, live on O'ahu. Lawrence and Beverly Perry, George's parents, also live here, as does Greg Perry.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com or 525-5459.