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By Sarah Langdon
The NAVSAFECEN mishap investigations directorate was notified of a mishap on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), which was operating off the coast of Okinawa, in January 2020. An MH-60S, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12, had crashed into the Pacific Ocean. While all crewmembers safely escaped the helicopter, the MH-60 sank, coming to rest on the ocean floor nearly 20,000 feet below the surface.
More than a year later, on March 19, the investigations team, led by Maj. Brett Papale, aviation safety investigator, spearheaded a recovery operation involving the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) command, embarked on a commercial, dynamic-positioning (DP) ship Grand Canyon II. As lead investigator, Papale worked hand-in-hand with the HSC 12 AMB and SUPSALV’s deep ocean program manager, Bryan Blake, to coordinate the recovery.
The recovery operation broke SUPSALV’s own record for deep-water aircraft recovery and provides an opportunity for NAVSAFECEN investigators and members of the AMB to examine critical evidence needed to determine why the aircraft went down.
The ability to recover a downed aircraft, and any source of data information, provides NAVSAFECEN critical information to determine the cause and prevent further mishaps by uncovering possible equipment and systems issues that need improvement or require updated procedures or changes in how pilots respond in emergencies. Determining how to access the data faster after a mishap is critical. If there was an issue with a particular flight system, that information should pushed out to the Navy, Marine Corps and other armed services as soon as possible.
For the investigators, the overall goal is not about looking for who or what was at fault; rather, the focus is on collecting and examining all evidence to determine why something happened and what actions or steps can be implemented to prevent this type of mishap from happening again in the future. The investigation covers everything from changes to procedures, checklists, how aircrew or pilots respond in specific environments or console warnings and cautions ꟷ to complacency and compliance issues based on unit or command culture, as well as problems with the various equipment, systems and aircraft components.
According to Dave Clark, NAVSAFECEN aviation safety specialist and 20-year veteran of mishap investigations, there is always a desire to recover the aircraft and determine what actually went wrong, a process that requires interviews with everyone involved, reviews of maintenance logs and ideally, examination of the aircraft itself.
“The evidence immediately available would be from the crew and the maintenance history,” Clark said. “Had the crew not survived, we wouldn’t have anything to go on.”
By recovering the downed helicopter, investigative teams can take it apart and look at suspect components. Even more important, the recovery provides access to the one component on the helicopter that may tell the whole story, the non-volatile memory (NVM), or “black box,” that stores recorded data. NVMs retain data even when power to the box is lost, making their recovery invaluable in investigations and analysis. Accessing that information quickly is especially important in a scenario like this, where a component failure is indicated, as the component may have widespread use, not just in Navy and Marine Corps helicopter platforms, but in Army and Air Force aircraft as well.