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Black Hawk Crash Caused By "Spatial Disorientation"

Eglin Air Force Base

Nearly three months after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in March in Santa Rosa Sound, the investigation has been completed. The report has concluded that the cause of the accident that killed all 11 crew members was the result of “spatial disorientation.”

The UH-60M Black Hawk was one of two assigned to the Louisiana National Guard that were on a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command out of Eglin Air Force Base. The first training mission in February was successfully conducted. It was during the second training mission that the crash occurred – at night – in dense fog –just offshore of Navarre.

“At the time the helicopter crossed over from the land to water, the pilots encountered serious weather, fog, and became disoriented as to their position,” said Col. Pete Schneider, state public affairs officer for the Louisiana National Guard.

According to Schneider, in conditions such as dense fog, the pilots – identified as Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Griffin, Jr. and Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Strother - were trained to switch from “visual conditions” to “instrument conditions.”

“And, the investigation determined that that did not occur, that they stayed to try and navigate the aircraft with visual references instead of going to their instruments,” Schneider said. “This disorientation eventually led them to pub the aircraft into a position that was unrecoverable.”

The investigation into the crash was conducted jointly by the Louisiana National Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command and it included a comprehensive review and analysis that examined all aspects surrounding the accident. Col. Schneider noted that most revealing was data recovered from the helicopter’s black box recorder.

“There was actually a track that could be drawn off the information to where they could read gauges, altitude, air speed, and based off the experience of the investigation board it was determined that the pilots had experienced spatial disorientation.”

Schneider also pointed out that in the voice recording, it’s never spoken that the pilots were coming off the visual and going to instruments.

Unfortunately, what happened to the Black Hawk pilots is all too common, despite the military’s best efforts.

“Thirty percent of Army aviation accidents are attributed to spatial disorientation. That’s a high number,” said Schneider. “Pilots are trained both in simulators and in real world experience to first recognize that they’re encountering spatial disorientation and then after recognizing it, to alleviate it.”

Tragically, that recognition didn’t come in time, and the helicopter crashed into Santa Rosa Sound killing four Guardsmen based in Hammond, Louisiana and 7 Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The search continued for seven days before all crew members had been recovered and identified.

Moving forward, the Louisiana National Guard plans to focus on doing what they can for the families of the soldiers who died.

Additionally, their aim is to take the lessons learned from this accident and apply them throughout Army aviation and even aviation throughout the services.

“The families of these soldiers were adamant that we take this tragic accident and we learn from it to prevent it from happening again,” Schneider said.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.