The Vietnam-era CH-3E, tail number 65-05692, Jolly Green Giant Helicopter was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as part of Air Force Reserve's 71st Special Operations Squadron, now known as the 943rd Rescue Group. The motto of the 943rd Rescue Group is "These Things We Do...That Others May Live.”
On Sunday, March 12, 1989, a clear, moonless night, Air Force helicopter 65-05692, call sign “PONY 12” with an Air Force Reserve crew of 4 and an 11 member Army Special Forces Team aboard from the 5th Special Forces Group assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C. and was participating in a joint-service training exercise. The helicopter was number two of a two ship in trail formation on a planned night infiltration mission. The flight began from Libby Army Airfield, Fort Huachuca Arizona, 79 miles southeast of Tucson, to the Air Force's Gila Bend Gunnery Range, 124 miles northwest of Tucson. On the way the helicopter stopped at Davis-Monthan AFB for refueling.
They departed Davis-Monthan at 7:20pm and crashed approximately fifteen minutes later in a desolate desert area in an uninhabited area adjacent to the Sahuaro National Monument about 20 miles northwest of Tucson. They crashed without getting any radio calls off or anything and the other helicopter in the formation was unaware of what took place. The entire Air Force Reserve crew of 4 and the 11 member Army Special Forces Team were all were lost in the crash. One witness said he saw the crash from his house a few miles away. "I looked up and I seen a yellow ball, like flames, coming out of the back," he said. "Five seconds later I saw it hit the ground, and then there was a red fireball.”
Air Force investigators looked at everything from weather to maintenance and weight to determine why the helicopter crashed. The helicopter was flying at the prescribed altitude for the area just prior to the crash; they were not on a low-level mission. The use of controversial night vision goggles, which had been an issue in numerous military helicopter crashes at that time were also ruled out as a crash cause. The main rotor shaft nut, a fastener about a foot in diameter that holds the main rotor head to the helicopter frame, had been checked just two days before the crash. The helicopter was among more than 300 CH-3Es and similar helicopters inspected for defective nuts. The accident investigation team examined the nut and decided it "wasn't a factor in the accident." The nut was found still in place, holding what remained of the rotor blades to what remained of the helicopter's engine housing.
The mystery of why the helicopter crashed continued for some time until investigators dug deep into the maintenance records and examined the wreckage which was removed to Davis-Monthan and photographed. There wasn't much left because there was a post crash fire that destroyed most of the evidence. It turns out that one of the main rotor blades was overhauled and replaced just before the crash. The main rotor blade that was replaced was incorrectly overhauled by the factory and failed 15 minutes into the flight, taking out the tail rotor. It was further discovered that a number of other main rotor blades were also incorrectly overhauled.
The overhaul company, United Technologies Corporation (UTC) and Sikorsky were later sued as a result of this accident. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Air Force Reserve crew members lost in the accident in court cases Slaven vs. UTC and Thomas vs. Sikorsky. A legal file with wreckage photographs is in the archives of a lawyer’s office in Los Angeles.
The Air Force Reserve crew members lost in the accident were: Lt. Col. Lawrence M. Rolle, 41, of Phoenix, commander of the reserve squadron and co-pilot of the helicopter; Maj. Donald D. Thomas, 42, of Tempe, the pilot; Master Sgt. Malte Breitlow, 45, of Tucson, and Tech. Sgt. William E. Slaven, 37, also of Tucson.
The Army Special Forces Team aboard from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, N.C. were Capt. lvin L. Broussard, 30, of Sulphur, La.; Capt. Alan C. Brown, 32, West Plains, Mo.; Master Sgt. Roger D. Berryhill, 34, Pahokee, Fla.; Sgt. 1st Class Larry K. Evans, 30, Sparks, Nev.; Sgt. 1st Class George A. Wayne, 31, Whiteville, N.C.; Staff. Sgt. John W. Bigler II, 24, of Long Beach, Calif.; Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Campbell, 26, Clinton, S.C.; Staff Sgt. Robert L. Griswold, Fayetteville, N.C.; Staff Sgt. Kevin R. Livengood, 29, San Antonio, Texas; Sgt. Larry D. Endress, 30, Clearwater, Fla.; and Sgt. Terry M. Hollway, 28, Los Angeles.
If we forget these sacrifices we will never truly appreciate how precious, valuable and costly these freedoms are. We must remember freedom is not free; it is paid for with the sweat from our brows, the tears of our families, and sometimes the blood of our comrades.