Early Thursday evening, the Coast Guard C-130 was on its own search mission for a 12-foot skiff thought to be lost near San Clemente Island. At about 7:15 p.m., the low-flying plane and a Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter that was conducting a nighttime exercise collided. The resulting fireball was witnessed by another pilot nearby, according to reports.
Now, the original search for the skiff has expanded to a 14-mile by 14-mile search area with a flotilla of Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Patrol vessels and a number of aircraft all looking for survivors of the crash, according to Coast Guard officials. The "debris field" is smaller – about 10 miles by four miles, says Petty Officer Matthew Schofield, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.
"Right now we're still searching with the hope that we find survivors," he says.
In the California crash, some of the seven personnel aboard the Coast Guard C-130 were wearing night vision goggles to search the evening waters for the skiff. Typically such searches would mean the flight level of the plane would be between 150 feet and 2,000 feet, Schofield says.
The Marine helicopter was conducting a nighttime exercise. Such helicopters usually do not fly alone but it is unclear what the exercise was for or how many other aircraft might have been involved.
The Coast Guard and the Navy and Marine Corps would conduct a joint investigation, including the actual altitude of the search plane and how the Marine helicopter's night exercise coincided in tragedy.
The Coast Guard's last helicopter mishap was in Hawaii in August 2008, in which four were killed. Its last C-130 crash was in the 1980s, the official says.
There have been a number of military mid-air collisions recently, including two F-16 fighter jets that hit each other off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month and killed one of the two pilots involved.
In Afghanistan this month, 14 Americans died after a series of helicopter crashes. One crash involved two helicopters colliding, killing four and wounding two others. The other crash, in which seven service members and three Drug Enforcement Agency officials were killed, occurred after a firefight with the Taliban in western Afghanistan.
The military there is investigating both crashes.