VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Rescuers called off their search Thursday for a sailor missing since a Navy helicopter with five crew members aboard crashed in the ocean off the Virginia coast, the Coast Guard said.
Two people died in the Wednesday crash, and two others were hospitalized.
The Coast Guard had searched an area of 500 square miles by air and sea for more than 30 hours before calling off the active search at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Little said. The Navy also sent out two helicopters to assist with the search.
“We’re not actively looking, but we have an on-the-scene presence,” said Capt. John Little, Coast Guard section commander. Little said the frigid temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Virginia Beach, contributed to the decision to end the active rescue effort.
Of the two survivors, one was released from the hospital Thursday, and the other could be released as soon as Friday, said Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic at a press conference Thursday. He declined to identify the survivors.
The sailors who died were Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, of Greensboro, N.C., and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25, of Truckee, Calif. Van Dorn was a pilot and Collins a crewman on the flight, Flannery said.
Van Dorn and Collins were among four crew members hoisted from the 42-degree waters Wednesday by a Navy helicopter.
The Navy identified the aircraft as an MH-53E Sea Dragon assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fourteen based at Naval Station Norfolk. In July 2012, two crew members were killed when the same model helicopter crashed into a canyon in the Gulf nation of Oman while lifting a downed aircraft.
The Navy has sought to retire Sea Dragons for years. In 2007, the Navy had planned to begin retiring the aircraft in 2015. Plans now call for Sea Dragons to remain in use through 2025, according to military and congressional documents.
The heavy-duty helicopters typically tow a heavy “sled” that is used in mine clearing operations and sometimes for heavy lifting. The Navy has said that Wednesday’s crash occurred during a routine training exercise for mine countermeasures.
According to the Naval Air Systems Command website, the three-engine helicopter searches for sea mines and does onboard delivery missions. The 99-foot craft holds a crew of up to eight, including two pilots and is capable of speeds of more than 170 mph.
It was not immediately known why the chopper, which weighs up to 34 tons, went down, Flannery said. An investigation is already underway.
During Thursday’s press conference, Flannery said the Sea Dragon “has been a workhorse for the Navy for over 30 years” and that the Navy has invested significant resources in the copter over the last two years.
“I look forward to its continued service in the fleet,” he said.
Matthew Robinson, an air safety investigator from Denver with Robson Forensic, has twice investigated MH-53 crashes when he worked for the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk. He said there is nothing inherently dangerous about the helicopters and was skeptical of statistics showing a higher crash rate in recent years for Sea Dragons. He also said the mine-clearing missions conducted by those aircraft are not necessarily any more dangerous than other missions.
He said it may take several months for the Navy to complete its investigation, which is complicated by the necessity of conducting a salvage operation in the Atlantic to reclaim the wreckage.
“I have the utmost confidence in the investigators at the Naval Safety Center” to do a thorough job investigating the crash, Robinson said in a phone interview.
Another expert, Alan Diehl, who has been of critical military investigations of aviation mishaps, said he believes the military safety centers do a better job than they used to, but still lack the independence of the civilian investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“They really need a military safety board, independent of the services,” said Diehl, of Albuquerque, N.M., who previously served as an Air Force investigator.
As a general rule, he said, 80 percent of aviation accidents are caused by human error, though he said helicopter crashes are a little more likely to be the result of mechanical problems.
The Navy said Virginia Beach Fire Department boats located the aircraft fuselage and tail section. Coast Guard and Navy ships also responded, including the guided missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham. Navy aircraft also were involved in the search.
Those aboard the chopper were wearing survival suits designed to keep water away from the body.
An adult could survive probably one to three hours in 40- to 50-degree water and would become exhausted or unconscious between 30 and 60 minutes, according to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association website. Survival also varies based on body size, body fat percentage and movement in the water.
According to a Navy investigation obtained by The Virginian-Pilot in November, the July 2012 crash of the $50 million helicopter revealed a series of problems within the Navy Sea Dragon program, which is headquartered in Norfolk. In that specific crash, the report blamed the crew for skipping preflight safety checks and for failing to develop a concrete plan for how and when to abort the mission.
But Flannery told the newspaper following the investigation that the Navy has invested millions of dollars to upgrade and better maintain its remaining 29 Sea Dragon airframes since the crash, including adding more than 100 maintenance personnel to the Norfolk-based squadrons.
Statistics from the Naval Safety Center show a drop over the past five years in the number of the most serious aviation accidents — those that cause either $2 million in damages or the loss of life. In Fiscal 2013, the Navy had only four so-called “Class A mishaps,” its lowest number ever, according to a safety center report.