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What went wrong in Idaho National Guard helicopter crash? Preliminary findings released

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Fairchild Air Force Base photographed in 2018. Three members of the Idaho National Guard were killed after their a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed the night of Feb. 2 near Boise.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Fairchild Air Force Base photographed in 2018. Three members of the Idaho National Guard were killed after their a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed the night of Feb. 2 near Boise. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jacob Scholl Idaho Statesman

Idaho National Guard leadership said weather and human factors were the main contributors to the fatal helicopter crash in February that killed three pilots outside of Boise.

During a news conference Friday at Gowen Field, officials gave further details of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crash southeast of Boise on the night of Feb. 2 that claimed the lives of all three men on board.

Because of weather, the Black Hawk crew lost outside visuals and had only 14 seconds to correct elevation safely. However, the crew was unable to do so and crashed, according to Col. Christopher Burt, state Army aviation officer for the Idaho Guard.

Though he said the primary cause of the crash was “the crew’s inability to successfully complete the emergency procedure,” weather played a significant role and the three continued to work together as a crew.

Burt said investigators found no mechanical issues during the preliminary investigation.

“It was also determined that all aircraft inspections and required maintenance were current, and that the unit’s maintenance programs and procedures were deemed healthy and fully functional,” Burt said.

The three men who died in the crash – Jesse Anderson, George “Geoff” Laubhan and Matthew Peltzer – were members of the 1st Battalion of the 183rd Aviation Regiment and were decorated chief warrant officers. All three lived in the Treasure Valley, and each man is survived by a wife and children.

The Guard said the crash remains under investigation and findings have yet to be finalized.

Flying nearly blind

Burt said that as the crew was en route back to Boise that night, weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. Fog and precipitation caused the crew to lose all visuals for the ground and the surrounding terrain, which Burt described as “mountainous.”

At that point, the only reference the crew had was the helicopter instruments. This occurrence, Burt said, is “one of the most difficult and dangerous emergency procedures that we can be exposed to” as helicopter pilots.

Burt said the crew performed as it should, but with no outside visuals, they were unable to navigate the mountainous terrain. He said that after the crew lost visuals, it was a matter of seconds before the helicopter crashed.

Lt. Col. Nicole Washington – the commander of the Idaho Guard’s 1st Battalion, 183rd Aviation Regiment – likened the scenario the crew faced to sprinting on an indoor track and anticipating a hurdle, only to have the room go dark.

Leading up to the crash

Burt gave a detailed timeline of events leading up to the crash, saying the three pilots took off from Gowen Field at 6:50 p.m. and flew southeast of Boise. As they were flying, the crew reported no anomalies with the helicopter, Burt said. At 7:09 p.m. and 7:29 p.m., the crew reported to operations that everything was normal.

At 7:45 p.m., the crew notified operations that they had completed their training tasks and were heading back to Boise. It was the last time the crew spoke with ground operations.

The crash occurred around 8:05 p.m., as Guard officials in Boise were notified by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Florida that it had received an active emergency transmitter from the Black Hawk. Seconds after getting the transmitter beacon, operations staff tried to reach the flight crew, but did not get a response.

The transmitter gave local flight officials a grid and starting point for a search, which began immediately. Another aircraft that was training that night was diverted from its planned route by 8:07 p.m. and began to fly toward the crash area.

However, at 8:42 p.m., that aircraft indicated that it would not be able to fly safely to the reported crash area due to weather conditions, and it returned to Gowen Field. A ground search began at about 9:30 p.m. The air search began again at 11:45 p.m., as the weather had significantly improved by that time.

Just after midnight, at 12:13 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, the air search crew found the crash site and confirmed that there were no survivors. Elmore County search and rescue teams later arrived and began securing the scene.

On Feb. 4, a safety investigation team with the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center arrived in Boise and began investigating.

With the help of the Nevada National Guard, the helicopter wreckage was recovered from the crash site and moved back to Gowen Field.

Other fatal Black Hawk crashes

The fatal Black Hawk crash was the fourth to occur in the United States since late 2019, with nine National Guardsmen dying in crashes in New York, California and Minnesota.

After the crash in Idaho, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, asked newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to investigate the string of crashes and give a classified briefing on the findings.

Despite the calls to investigate, Army National Guard officials later said they would continue to fly Black Hawks.

“Based on the current data, the Army does not see a mishap trend with National Guard UH-60s (Black Hawks),” Army spokesman Jason Waggoner told McClatchy News. “There are currently no plans to conduct an Army-level stand down. Any lower-level stand down would be up to the unit.”

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