Witnesses describe US helicopter 'fireball' crash caused by geese in Norfolk marshes

Four crew members died when the HH-60 Pave Hawk came down in January

A US military helicopter exploded in a “fireball” after it was hit by a flock of geese while flying over a Norfolk nature reserve, witnesses have said.

All four crew members, Capt Christopher Stover, Capt Sean Ruane, Tech Sgt Dale Mathews and Staff Sgt Afton Ponce, died in the crash near Cley in January.

The HH-60G Pave Hawk, described as having “the best safety record of any helicopter that the US has ever owned”, was flying with another helicopter on a training exercise near RAF Lakenheath when it went down.

Initial investigations focused on ammunition the aircraft was carrying but the Accident Investigation Branch has since confirmed the crash was caused by pink-footed geese that smashed through the helicopter’s windscreen, knocking the pilot and co-pilot unconscious.

Wreckage including live munitions was scattered across an area the size of a football pitch in Cley Marshes, a nature reserve known for its popularity with birdwatchers.

View of coastal marshland habitat in Cley-next-the-sea, Norfolk View of coastal marshland habitat in Cley-next-the-sea, Norfolk (Rex) The United States Air Force in Europe has now released witness statements from its investigation under freedom of information laws.

Officials believe the first helicopter startled birds in the marshes, causing them to fly up and hit the aircraft behind, which was flying just 110ft off the ground at 126mph.

According to a report seen by the BBC, the impact was so severe that parts of the geese were found entwined with bolts from the downed helicopter.

The co-pilot of the helicopter in front - whose name was not released - told the investigation panel: “The gunner said 'I've got a fireball at the six o'clock' or at the seven o'clock or something like that, and at that point we [tried] to initiate a radio contact with them and we failed to do it.

"Obviously, there was no answer.

"It did not look like what I thought a crashed helicopter would look like, you know, because there was obviously a lot of water there and stuff so [it] was a really small fire from my perspective.”

A US military helicopter lands near the scene of the crash near Cley-next-the-Sea A US military helicopter lands near the scene of the crash near Cley-next-the-Sea The Pave Hawk, stationed with the 48th Air Wing at the US Air Force base at RAF Lakenheath, had taken off shortly after 5.30pm on 7 January and crashed half an hour later.

The risk of bird strikes in the area was assessed as “low” and some experts initially doubted geese could have caused a fatal crash.

Local people claimed they had warned of the hazard before to the authorities but were rebuffed.

Richard Kelham, chairman of Cley Parish Council, said: “In a sense it was an accident waiting to happen. We used to complain to the commanding officer who bluntly told us to piss off.

"We do feel for the families of the crew, but they were put in a position they should not have been. This is a place for birds.”

The gunner of the first aircraft said leading helicopters frequently startle birds, causing them to fly in front of anyone behind.

“I noticed they were gone,” he added. ”So I queried my flight engineer and they went over there and that's when the gut feeling that something was wrong hit me.”

Read more: Munitions hamper investigations into US helicopter crash
US servicemen named as floodwater delays search
Investigation int how 'safest ever' helicopter came down in Norfolk marshes
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk