Military training flights are among the most challenging and potentially dangerous in all of aviation. Aircraft and crew are pushed to the limits in circumstances simulating combat flying, often at night or in bad weather. Mistakes occur or equipment fails with no time to recover before impact.
Seven US Marines and four US Army soldiers are missing and presumed dead, officials report, although the recovery effort is still classified as search and rescue. Debris and human remains have washed ashore.
The recovery effort has been hampered by heavy fog – reportedly the same weather condition that existed when the training flight of two Black Hawks took off, the second of which returned safely to base.
The Marines were part of a special operations group based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The National Guard soldiers were from a unit based in Hammond, La. None were immediately identified pending notification of next of kin.
Capt. Barry Morris, spokesman for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune says the troops involved with the exercise had been in the Florida Panhandle since Sunday and were scheduled to stay through this Sunday. He says they were practicing what the military calls “insertion and extraction” missions.
The Army helicopter had taken off from an airport east of Pensacola in Destin, Fla., to join other aircraft in the training area, which includes 20 miles of pristine beachfront under military control since before World War II. The military sometimes drops trainees into the water in the area, to make their way ashore from boats or helicopters.
It’s an area with many military facilities and training activities. Navy and Marine Corps aviators first learn to land on aircraft carriers from the Naval Air Station at Pensacola. Eglin Air Force Base includes fighter squadrons, a special operations wing, and training facilities for US Army Rangers. Included in the field training exercises out of Eglin are airborne and helicopter assaults, small boat operations, river crossings, and swamp crossings.
US Coast Guard officials said debris was first spotted about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, and that the search area later expanded to a 17-mile stretch of the narrow sound separating Santa Rosa Island from the Florida Panhandle mainland.
Kim Urr, who works at a campground near where the helicopter went down, said she heard a strange sound followed by two explosions around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"It sounded like something metal either being hit or falling over, that's what it sounded like. And there were two booms afterward, similar to what you hear with ordnance booms, but more muffled," Ms. Urr told the Associated Press. "We knew immediately that something was not right."
This week’s military helicopter accident could be among the deadliest domestic military training accidents in recent years.
In February 2012, seven Marines were killed when two helicopters collided during a nighttime training exercise along the California-Arizona border.
The following year, seven Marines died in an explosion at a Nevada munitions depot, after a mortar round detonated prematurely during a live-fire training exercise. Eight other service members were injured in that incident.
President Obama spoke with the military leaders involved in the recovery effort Wednesday and said he is confident there will be a detailed and thorough investigation. He also expressed his condolences to the families and fellow service members of those killed, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families as the search and rescue continues.”
Also speaking to the Senate committee Wednesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the crash illustrates the fact that military personnel are “at risk whether in training or in combat.”
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.