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Air Force: Pilot error in Iraq helicopter crash that killed four from 106th

A report released by the Air Combat Command Accident Investigation Board also cited a poor flight plan and limited visibility as contributing to the crash.

Sgt. Dashan Briggs, Master Sgt. Christopher J. Raguso,

Sgt. Dashan Briggs, Master Sgt. Christopher J. Raguso, Capt. Christopher T. Zanetis and Capt. Andreas B. O'Keeffe were among those killed in the helicopter crash. Photo Credit: Department of Defense

A March helicopter crash in western Iraq that killed seven U.S. troops, including four members of the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard in Westhampton Beach, was caused by pilot error, a poor flight plan and limited visibility, according to an Air Force investigation.

A report released Monday by the Air Combat Command Accident Investigation Board found the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, a modified Black Hawk, struck a galvanized steel cable on March 15 and crashed in an uninhabited desert area near Al Qaim, at the border with Syria.

The monthlong investigation found the pilot misinterpreted the aircraft's navigational displays, causing him to overfly his intended destination. The chopper, descending into an unplanned location, struck a steel cable that was strung horizontally between two 341-foot-high towers, the report said.

"The cable tangled around the main rotor assembly resulting in catastrophic damage, rendering the aircraft un-flyable," wrote Brig. Gen. Bryan P.  Radliff, president of the accident investigation board.

Among those killed were Capt. Andreas B. O’Keeffe, a pilot and technician from Center Moriches; Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, a special missions flight engineer from Port Jefferson Station; Master Sgt. Christopher J. Raguso, a special missions aviation flight engineer from Commack; and Capt. Christopher T. Zanetis, a pilot from Long Island City, Queens.

Zanetis was commander of the helicopter and O'Keeffe was the co-pilot, said Capt. Michael O’Hagan, spokesman for the 106th Rescue Wing.

All four were stationed at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton. Raguso and Zanetis were also members of the FDNY. 

Their deaths drew outpourings of sympathy during ceremonies, and during processions that wound along flag-lined streets on Long Island and in New York City.

Base officials are expected to comment Wednesday, O'Hagan said.

Members of the 106th — who specialize in rescuing downed aircrews and other American forces trapped behind enemy lines — were sent to Iraq in late January in support of American efforts to confront ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The 106th, which has about 1,000 members, has also deployed to assist during disaster recovery, such as after hurricanes Florence and Michael this year.

Also killed were Master Sgt. William R. Posch, of Indialantic, Florida, and Staff Sgt. Carl P. Enis of Tallahassee, Florida. Both were assigned to the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. Capt. Mark K. Weber of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who was assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, also died in the crash.

The Pave Hawk, part of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, went down during a two-aircraft mission to pre-position their crew at a landing zone closer to coalition ground operations, the report said.

The 9 p.m. flight began uneventfully with an in-air refueling. But roughly 40 minutes into the flight, the pilot, flying 144 mph and about 250 to 270 feet above ground level, mistakenly turned north, away from the helicopter landing zone, the report said.

The report suggests the pilot may have misread the next navigation waypoint — incorporated into the flight plan as a backup in case they needed to land elsewhere — as their intended destination.

As the $49 million chopper descended to a lower altitude, the co-pilot "took evasive action" and turned left to avoid the tower but struck a steel 3/8-inch cable, the report found.

"The aircraft suffered catastrophic structural failures and was completely uncontrollable before impact with the ground," Radliff wrote.

All members of the crew sustained "rapid lethal blunt traumatic forces" and were killed on impact, the report said. 

The second chopper crew, which spotted the cables and was able to divert from the area, called in a search and rescue team that secured the crash site, investigators found. 

Among the factors cited by the report as contributing to the crash were a breakdown in communication among the crew and low illumination that made night vision goggles insufficient to detect the cables.

The HH-60G's Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures contains a warning stating that “electric power lines, unlit towers, poles, antennas, dead trees, and all types of wires are extremely difficult to see while conducting [night vision goggles] operations," the report said.

The report determined that weather was not a factor in the crash. The helicopter had passed a recent maintenance inspection and the crew was properly rested, trained and supervised, investigators said. 

With Martin C. Evans

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