The U.S. military and civilian agencies are conducting search-and-rescue operations for 11 members of the military who were on board a Black Hawk helicopter that went missing Tuesday night, but so far only human remains and aircraft debris have been recovered.
The Black Hawk was involved in what military officials describe as a routine training mission carrying seven Marines and a four-member flight crew of Army National Guard soldiers when it was reported missing at 8:30 p.m.
The mission Tuesday night took two Black Hawk helicopters participating in joint operations involving special operations Marines and Army National Guard aviators out over the water near Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. One of the Black Hawks went down for reasons that are still unclear, while the other returned to the base without incident.
“It is still an active search-and-rescue mission,” said Amy Parr, a spokeswoman for the Air Force base. “We can’t confirm the number of deaths because we are still looking.”
If, as feared, all service members died aboard the missing Black Hawk, the crash would be among the deadliest incidents for the U.S. military in recent years.
A Pentagon official who spoke to the Associated Press on Wednesday morning said the service members on board the helicopter were “presumed dead.”
“We have multiple agencies out there right now,” said Parr. “Eglin Fire Department is the lead for this operation. They are teamed with more than a hundred people,” including local civilian agencies and Air Force and Coast Guard units.
At 2 a.m. Wednesday, rescue workers found aircraft debris floating offshore. Human remains were identified later in the day.
Heavy fog that was in the area Tuesday night when the helicopter went missing continued into Wednesday morning, impeding rescue efforts. It lifted later in the day, only to return in the early evening.
An investigation into the incident has already begun, said Parr, though no official cause for the suspected crash has yet been determined.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Louisiana National Guard Major General Glenn H. Curtis emphasized the unpredictability of weather conditions and the experience of the Black Hawk pilots and crew members. The flight crew “had several thousand hours in that cockpit, and they had several thousand combat hours,” Curtis told reporters. “This will remain a search-and-rescue operation until further notice.”
The soldiers aboard the helicopter that landed safely are still at Eglin Air Force Base and may help provide answers about the circumstances of the training mission Tuesday night. “They will be part of the investigation,” said Colonel Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.
A spokesman for the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command told the Associated Press that at the time the helicopter went missing it was being used for “insertion and extraction missions.” In addition to the two helicopters, boat crews were involved in the operation.
In an “insertion and extraction” scenario, the National Guard soldiers working as the Black Hawk’s flight crew would have picked up the Marines and dropped them off at a target location while operating under time constraints. These kinds of missions, while common, always involve dangers. In combat they can involve landing a helicopter in a known enemy location where it is especially vulnerable to attack while it stays in one place to drop off or pick up passengers.
The seven Marines missing after the helicopter’s disappearance were assigned to a special operations unit at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, according to a Pentagon official. Camp Lejeune is home to the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, which is the headquarters for a number of smaller subordinate units.
A Black Hawk crew consists of two pilots who are typically warrant officers and two enlisted crew chiefs. While the pilots focus on flying, the crew chiefs handle everything in the body of the aircraft, from performing maintenance to manning machine guns mounted in the doors of the helicopter during combat missions.
The four soldiers in the helicopter’s flight crew belonged to the Louisiana National Guard. They were members of the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion based out of Hammond, Louisiana, a unit that has been deployed twice during combat operations in Iraq. Members of the 1-244th have been called repeatedly to serve during domestic emergencies, including Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
The names of the soldiers on board the Black Hawk have been withheld, but a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard said their families had been informed that they were missing.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families as the search and rescue continues,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday morning.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey called the incident “a reminder to us that those who serve put themselves at risk, both in training and in combat.”
Dempsey said his office would “work with the services to ensure that their family members will be well cared for.”