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Media mayhem.

In the middle of a period of high operational tempo, a cruiser's light airborne multipurpose detachment was tasked to fly a Navy cameraman and a civilian reporter so they could capture a maritime interdiction operation against a civilian ship that the cruiser's SEALs were conducting. After flying for most of the night and operating on very little sleep, the H-60 Seahawk crew launched at sunrise with the cameraman and the ship's public affairs officer instead of the reporter. When the reporter elected not to go flying, the PAO unilaterally decided he would take his place, and the helo crew didn't think to question his decision.

The helicopter aircraft commander (HAC) discussed plans for filming the operation with the cameraman, including the best way to capture the small boat operations. The cameraman wore an ICS-capable helmet and a gunner's belt. The Hellfire missiles, M-60 machine gun, ammunition, and other tactical gear from the previous night's missions were not removed from the aircraft. The crew chief strapped the PAO into the sensor operator's (SENSO) seat.

Following takeoff, the cameraman positioned himself in the cabin door and coordinated aircraft positioning with the HAC, who was also the pilot at the controls. The H-60 hovered at 100 feet abeam the port side of the cruiser so the cameraman could shoot the small boat being lowered into the water. The HAC's mental plot positioned the civilian vessel a half-mile behind them, and neither the copilot nor the crew chief scanned outside to ensure clearance.

The H-60 hovered abeam the cruiser until the small boat began to head aft to pick up the boarding team. By this time, what the pilot believed to be over a mile of separation between his aircraft and the civilian vessel was actually less than 100 feet. As the HAC maneuvered the H-60 aft to follow the small boat as it steamed for the civilian vessel, the helo's tail rotor struck the civilian vessel's forward mast and the aircraft began spinning violently. The centrifugal forces kept the pilot from reaching the power control levers as called for in the NATOPS emergency procedures for "loss of tail rotor drive." The cameraman was thrown out of the aircraft, still attached by the gunner's belt.

After spinning a couple of times, the H-60 hit the side of the civilian ship and dove nose-down into the water. After impact, the helicopter rolled left and immediately filled with water. Each pilot egressed through his door while the crew chief went through the cabin door. After fighting with the five-point harness, the PAO exited by the SENSO's door, which had come off during the crash. The cameraman was found floating on the surface, unresponsive, and was declared dead by the ship's doctor once brought back aboard.

Grampaw Pettibone says:

Now Gramps likes to see himself on the silver screen as much as the next guy, but was this mission really necessary considering how long this crew had been operating without any real sack time? Of course, no aviator wants to get stuck with the "non-hacker" label, but these guys proved once again that there's no such thing as an easy hop. A series of misjudgments, not the least of which was the pilot's sense of how far away the civilian vessel was, showed a crew working at dangerously less than 100 percent. In this case, there would have been no shame in the crew crying uncle and saving the home movies for another day.
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Publication:Naval Aviation News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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