‘I saw a fireball’: Cley helicopter crash eye-witness accounts

09:49 29 July 2014

The scene at Cley next the Sea after an American military helicopter crashed and another landed after the incident.

The scene at Cley next the Sea after an American military helicopter crashed and another landed after the incident. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

Extracts from two of the eye-witness statements about the Cley helicopter crash.

USAF Helicopter crash at Cley. Recovery preperations continue.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLYUSAF Helicopter crash at Cley. Recovery preperations continue. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Witnesses to the fatal Cley US helicopter crash saw an “orange glow” in the sky before the Pave Hawk helicopter fell to the ground, a full investigation report has revealed.

The 1,876 page document, produced by US investigators, includes transcripts of interviews with witnesses that report seeing a flock of geese being scared into the sky, before a “fireball” was spotted by a secondary helicopter crew.

A summarised report released on July 9 confirmed the cause of the crash to be bird strike, after at least three geese smashed through the HH-60’s windscreen.

Captains Christopher S Stover, 28, and Sean M Ruane, 31, Technical Support Sergeant Dale E Mathews, 37, and Staff Sergeant Afton M Ponce, 28. all based at RAF Lakenheath, were killed in the crash.

Click here for yesterday’s story.

Here are extracts of the stement from the pilot of the helicopter that was behind that which crashed.

“At that point the gunner said he saw a fireball. So I immediately took the controls and... I turned the aircraft around, and probably about maybe half a mile behind us you could see a little bit of a fire. It wasn’t huge; but it didn’t look like them

because it was really small, a real small fire; but knew that it was them.”

“I climbed up, just in case it wasn’t them, and said over the radio we had the high block.”

“Flew to the area, saw the wreckage. The guy in the tell seat didn’t think it was them because the wreckage was too small, but I knew it was.”

“You could barely see what looked like the front of the aircraft, with the fire slowly dying; like maybe it looked like the flames were only two or three foot high. it was very wet there so they went out like that.”

“The three of us searched for survivors for about 20/30 minutes and eventually found all of them. And took pulses and there were no survivors. And there was not much we could do beyond that.

“And at that point, it gets really just tumbly where things are kind of just everywhere; but things seemed to be all on the same side. You know, there would be a gear on this side, and then a gear on this side, ammo can here. And we were finding, you know, one guy’s vest here, and something the gunner would have here, so it all kind of seemed like they hit flat -- you know, totally speculation, but on a dark night with a flashlight; obviously you guys will do a lot more detail.”

“I’m not speculating, but we didn’t see any birds. So, I mean, we see birds sometimes when we fly, and we’re usually pretty easy to avoid. Even on goggles, you can usually see them, especially if it’s a flock. And we didn’t see any.

“Actually, you know what, as much as we like to scoff at the weather here in the UK, last night’s weather was actually really, really good. The sky condition was clear. The visibility was fantastic. So it was pretty much unlimited, you know what I mean?”

“I don’t recall… I don’t recall seeing or calling out any wildlife. Generally speaking, if we see, you know birds or anything like that, we call them out and bearing range, altitude and aspect to the other aircraft so they don’t fly into them; you know what I mean?

“I mean there are birds all over the UK, you know what I mean? So, you know, bird avoidance is something that we deal with on a regular basis. I mean, it was something that we planned for and it’s you know… we always get bird watch updates and stuff like that. We’re always scanning to try and mitigate that risk and balance you know. So we’re only flying in those areas when the reward of the training that we’re receiving outweighs the risk that we’re incurring.”

Click here to read the full report

Norfolk helicopter crash: How the tragedy unfolded

Cley helicopter tragedy: In memoriam

Interview with a member of the public – a student who works freelance and saw helicopters shortly before the crash.

“And, so I stopped to watch them and they scared up a large flock of geese, because I remember seeing kind of the black dots going into the air and hearing them. And then they passed behind that flock, they scared the flock - the geese tend to be on these two fields here. You get large, huge flocks of them. And they started coming towards this way, right?

“And the choppers passed behind them, and that’s when I still could see more clearly that there was one -- there was one a little bit higher up, and about 100 meters in front of the other. And it might have been that it was higher up because it was closer to me.

“It literally dropped, like incredibly suddenly. And I could see this orange glow, this orange illumination.”

“And it was very quick; I mean so quick that I couldn’t believe my eyes. Because look -- I knew it was a chopper, it must have been a chopper: and thinking about it, my first thoughts were nothing, no mechanical vehicle could descend that quickly on purpose, so that must have been a crash. And, you know, just watching it I could hardly believe what I had just seen.

“You know, rationally that was the only thing that it could have been. But emotionally it was just so bizarre. I expected to hear sirens and to see flashing lights immediately; and nothing happened. It was very weird, it was uncanny.”

Photo gallery: The Cley helicopter tragedy in pictures

Prayers and tributes for victims of north Norfolk helicopter crash tragedy

Video: RAF Lakenheath press conference in full following helicopter crash in Cley

Concern over low flying aircraft in wake of Cley helicopter crash

Helicopter ‘did not sound right’: Salthouse couple tell of moments before crash at Cley


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