Thursday, February 23, 2012

Copter crash probe to look at preventive tech

As Marine Corps investigators scour the wreckage of two helicopters that collided near Yuma, Ariz., killing seven Marines, they are likely to consider whether advanced technology designed to prevent midair collisions could avert such incidents in the future, a Marine spokesman said Thursday.

The Marines, six from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and one from Yuma, were training for deployment to Afghanistan when their AH-1W Cobra and UH-1Y Huey crashed at about 8 p.m. Wednesday in a remote section of the Yuma Training Range Complex.

Marine investigators Thursday began combing through the wreckage, communication logs and flight plans at the outset of two investigations, said 1st Lt. Tyler Balzer, spokesman for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, north of San Diego.

One investigation will seek to assign responsibility for the crash, and the other will look at how to make inherently dangerous combat training safer, Balzer said.

Advanced technology for avoiding midair collisions will “certainly” have a role in the safety investigation, which will also look at equipment maintenance, training and procedures leading up to the crash, Balzer said.

“Whenever they look at something like this, they look at what technologies the Marine Corps could try to develop to prevent” a similar accident, he said.

Since 1980, the Navy has recorded 33 aviation incidents with seven or more fatalities, according to April Phillips of the Naval Safety Center in Norfork, Va.

In 1999, the Navy mandated installation of collision-avoidance systems on new and existing Navy aircraft. The Navy has also been testing radar technology to help airmen avoid midair collisions, but it was not installed on the types of aircraft involved in Wednesday’s crash.

The UH-1Y Huey and the AH-1W aircraft are equipped with lights visible by day and night and with night-vision goggles, says Capt. Brian Block, spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps. No other midair-collision-avoidance systems are installed on the UH-1Y or the AH-1W aircraft, Block said.

The Cobra and Huey were training together, carrying explosives, along with at least two other aircraft, according to Col. Robert Kuckuk, air station commander for the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma.

The Yuma range, with its desert terrain, is similar to what Marines would encounter in Afghanistan, and the aircraft used are identical to those used in combat, said Cpl. Steven Posy, a Miramar spokesman.

Adding technology to combat helicopters would have to be carefully considered, because weight and space are scarce, said Jay Brown, executive director of the Combat Helicopter Pilots Association, a veterans group.

Brown, who flew combat missions in Vietnam, over the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War and in Operation Desert Storm, said any technology that uses radar or emits a radio frequency could be self-defeating.

“Radar is a transmitter, and the people you’re fighting, the enemy, have the capability to detect transmitters,” Brown said. “It would be tantamount to flying across the battlefield with a big red flag. You might as well turn your lights up and say, ‘Here I am.’ “

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