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Families Of 2018 Marine Helicopter Crash Victims Sue Part Suppliers

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter lands on the flight deck of the USS Peleli...

Credit: Department of Defense

Above: A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter lands on the flight deck of the USS Peleliu, May 16, 2008.

Two years ago, four Marines died when their Super Stallion helicopter crashed outside of El Centro. A newly released report clears the crew of any wrong-doing in the latest incident in the helicopter’s troubled history.

The crash occurred April 3, 2018, near the end of a routine mission. Two Super Stallion CH-53E helicopters were coming back from Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, after dropping off passengers and cargo. They were stopping at a military landing zone, dubbed LZ Paddles, in the California desert before heading back to base at nearby El Centro.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

“They were both going together and they were just a couple hundred feet off the ground when suddenly one just started going down,” said Dave Casey, a San Diego attorney who represents the family of two of the victims.

KPBS obtained a copy of the recently completed Marine investigation into the crash. After nearly two years of examining the wreckage, the report blames the crash on a defective part, which broke down in the helicopter’s hydraulic fluid.

Pilots control the Super Stallion by tilting the overhead rotor. When the rotor tilts forward, the workhorse helicopter of the Marine Corp dips and picks up speed.

According to the command investigation, the Marines believe the root cause of the crash was a button on a valve in the aft rotor servo, which broke down under pressure when exposed to hydraulic fluid. A valve froze partly open, fatally limiting the pilot’s ability to control the helicopter.

From the second helicopter, the crew watched as the pilot of the helicopter, call-sign Warhorse 41, seemed to struggle to pull up, the copter then dropped at least 25 feet to the ground before the crew could even radio what was happening.

“So it happened very quickly, very traumatically, with no ability for the pilots to recover,” Casey said.

Pilot Capt. Samuel Schultz, copilot Lt. Capt. Samuel Phillips, crewmen Gunnery Sgt. Derik Holley, and Lance Cpl. Taylor Conrad died on impact. They were from the Third Marine Aircraft Wing based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Casey represents the families of the two pilots.

“Until that report came out, people were assuming there was pilot error. There was no pilot error. They knew what they were doing. It was a defective part,” he said.

The report was completed in two phases.

The first phase cleared the pilots and crew of wrongdoing and declared their deaths as officially in the line of duty. The determination was not released to the public or the families until the second phase wrapped up less than two weeks before the two-year anniversary of the crash, which included the results of a detailed crash reconstruction on the heavily damaged helicopter.

The 2018 crash is not the first crash for the CH-53E, which has been in service in the Marine Corps since 1981. Last year, the workhorse of Marine aviation passed 1 million flight miles.

Journalist Jason Paladino made a documentary about the Navy’s version of the same Sikorsky helicopter, after his high-school friend Wes VanDorn was killed in a crash initially thought to be pilot error but found to be caused by a wiring issue. The helicopter’s crash rate is higher than other aircraft in the military, Paladino said.

“The other thing about this aircraft is, if you look at a fatality rate, it has a much higher fatality rate than any other aircraft," Paladino said. “So basically if it does crash, it’s more likely to kill you, even compared with other helicopters in the military.”

It’s not just deaths. In Southern California, the CH-53E has made at least three emergency landings, in public, in the last five years. Singer Kenny Loggins, who wrote the song "Danger Zone" for the film "Top Gun," posted a picture of himself with a Super Stallion that made an emergency landing on Solana Beach, April 15, 2015. The most recent incident was Jan. 14 when a Super Stallion from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Miramar landed next to Interstate 15 and state Route 76 just before rush hour near Bonsall.

Another incident happened June 15, 2019, when a Marine Super Stallion made an emergency landing at the Imperial County Airport. No one was injured. A firefighter filmed as a fire engine extinguished the burning copter.

The Marines are in the middle of what they call a reset for the helicopter. All of the remaining 142 Super Stallions are being taken apart and rebuilt to keep the helicopter in operation through 2032. In the meantime, the helicopter’s replacement, the CH-53K has been delayed until at least 2024. At the moment, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar isn’t scheduled to replace the older CH-53E until the end of the decade.

In the 2018 crash that killed four Marines, attorney Casey is suing the companies that supplied the part implicated in the crash.

“These were young men who had everything to look forward to. In the case of our client, they left young children,” Casey said. “So it’s devastating, and it’s unnecessary and it should have been avoided.”

In most cases, families cannot sue the military directly. Citing the report, Casey’s firm has filed suit against the part suppliers Kampi Components Co., Inc. of Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, and Diamond Rubber Products Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, stating the part did not meet the military’s specifications. After the crash, the Marines issued a bulletin to remove the part from the other Super Stallions still in the fleet.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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