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HH-53J #68-10364

Fort Bragg, NC

2 June 1999

  Air Force Helicopter Crash Near Fort Bragg Kills One

CAMP MACKALL One person was killed and five injured when an Air Force special operations helicopter crashed in the woods of Moore County late Wednesday night, June 2, 1999.


Staff Sgt. Kurt Upton from Niota, IL, died around 5 a.m. at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center after suffering brain and internal injuries.


He was the crew's gunner, and was sitting in the back of the MH-53J Pave Low helicopter.


The other five crew members from the 16th

 Special Operation Wing walked away from the crash; they are believed to have crawled out of the copilot's window.


The crew was on a training mission over Camp Mackall when something went wrong. "It was a routine special operations training mission," said Capt. Susan Idziak, a public information officer for Pope Air Force Base. "The accident is under investigation right now."


Airmen secured the crash scene and placed flags beside every piece of debris from the MH-53J. The helicopter is in hundreds of pieces scattered up to a half-mile away.


"We have planned for approximately 750 to 1,000 different parts," says Lt. Col. Mike Delman, the on-scene commander.


It is still too early to determine whether the crash was caused by pilot error or mechanical error, but Pope investigators have already ruled out some factors.


"There is no tree damage anywhere around, so the helicopter did not hit any of the trees coming in," says investigator Col. Jim Kingsley.


The helicopter is assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron, part of the 16th Special Operations Wing based at Hurlburt Field in Florida.


Investigators will eventually put the helicopter back together in search for answers.

"Somewhere there's a piece out there that will tell the investigators exactly what happened," Kingsley said.


The five surviving crew members have already been questioned. The Pave Low was believed to have been coming in for a landing. Air combat controllers who witnessed the crash from the ground will also be interviewed.


Aberdeen rescue volunteer Bill Fipps was one of the first people to arrive on the crash scene. He lives less than a mile away. He says he knew something was wrong before he ever got a call for help.


"It didn't sound like a regular helicopter," he

said. "It sounded sort of like a lawn mower. It had a whiny noise to it."


Many other neighbors to Camp Mackall also heard the fatal accident.


"All of a sudden there was a boom and it was over with," says Moore County resident Albert Troutman. "Then I heard the men hollering. It was about a minute or two before the men started hollering."


The MH-53J Pave Lows are used primarily to "perform low-level, long-range, undetected penetration into denied areas, day or night, in adverse weather," according to the military.


The helicopters have been used successfully in Desert Storm and in Bosnia. One was reportedly used in March to rescue a stealth fighter pilot in Yugoslavia.


The Pave Low is the largest and most powerful helicopter in the Air Force inventory. It is also the most technologically advanced helicopter in the world.


However, the Pave Low is also one of the most maintenance-intensive aircraft in the Air Force. On average, maintenance people put in between 40 and 50 hours of maintenance for every hour flown.


After losing the helicopter Wednesday night, the Air Force now has a 40 Pave Lows in its arsenal. Built by Sikorsky Aircraft, each helicopter costs about $25 million.


The last major accident involving the Pave Low aircraft was in October 1988.

Updated Jun 23, 2000

Fatal Helicopter Crash


The fatal crash of an MH-53J helicopter in Moore County on June 2 occurred because of a "loss of situational awareness" by the air crew, according to a report just released by the Air Force Special Operations Command.


The crash killed Staff Sgt. Kurt Upton. The five other crew members survived.


A condition known as "dustout" contributed to the crew’s loss of situational awareness, the report states. "The unexpected severity of brown-out conditions created disruption of crew coordination during the final approach," says the report.


As part of a training exercise, the helicopter was to land in a clearing on Fort Bragg to move ground personnel out of the exercise staging area. During the landing, the helicopter’s downwash unexpectedly created a dust cloud that eliminated the crew’s visibility. After losing visibility, the pilot began using instruments to land the helicopter.

The pilot, Capt. John Glass, failed to correct for right drift as the helicopter approached the ground, according to the report. When the aircraft was 20 to 25 feet above the ground, a scanner told the pilot to pull up for another landing approach. He applied power to the helicopter just as it hit the ground.


The right landing gear sank into the sandy surface of the ground, stopping the right drift, the report says. This force, combined with the high power setting and high rate of descent, twisted the tail section, ripping it from the aircraft.


The helicopter lifted off the ground. Without a tail rotor, it flipped and hit the ground again about 100 feet from the original impact, the report says.


According to the report, the crew did not know that conditions at the landing site were conducive to dustout, and the mission commander waived a rule that requires a survey of the landing zone. The team used satellite images, maps and information from the Special Tactics Squadron team members.


While most of the report has not been released, an executive summary of the report is available.


The MH-53J, the largest helicopter in the Air Force’s inventory, performs low-level, long-range, undetected penetration, day or night, in adverse weather, for infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces.