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Birds blamed for helicopter crash that killed Priest River airman

Afton Ponce, 28, buried with military honors

Geese flew through the windshield of a U.S. Air Force helicopter during a training mission off the coast of England in January, causing a crash that killed four airmen, including Priest River’s Staff Sgt. Afton Ponce, according to a military investigation released Wednesday.

The helicopter crashed on the eastern coast of England while practicing a nighttime rescue mission scenario for a downed F1-6 pilot. The Pave Hawk was flying over grass-covered marshland near Cley next the Sea, a coastal village, when geese, likely startled by the noise, rose in flight and hit the helicopter flying at about 110 feet above ground level.

Investigators concluded that at least three geese hit the windshield, disabling the pilot, co-pilot and the aerial gunner. All three were rendered unconscious. One goose also hit the nose of the aircraft, disabling the trim and flight path stabilization systems.

With both pilots unconscious, and stabilization systems disabled, the helicopter banked left to the point it had no vertical lift. It crashed about three seconds after being struck by the geese, investigators said.

The U.S. Air Force identified the victims as Capt. Christopher S. Stover and Capt. Sean M. Ruane, who were piloting the plane; Tech. Sgt. Dale E. Mathews, and Ponce.

According to her obituary published in the Bonner County Daily Bee, Ponce, 28, graduated from Priest River Lamanna High School in 2003 and joined the Air Force soon after. She was buried with full military honors in Priest River. She is survived by her husband, also an airman, and their two children.

The Pave Hawk was assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing and based at the Royal Air Force station in Lakenheath.

A modified version of the better-known Black Hawks, the Pave Hawk is mostly used for combat search-and-rescue missions, such as recovering downed air crew members in hostile situations. They practice flying low, and have been deployed in military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.