Marine Cobra helicopter crash kills two in East County By Debbi Baker Union-Tribune Staff Writer Originally published 7:12 a.m. May 6, 2009, updated 10:43 a.m., May 6, 2009 A Marine AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter at Camp Pendleton in 2001.
– U-T file photo Related links About.com: United States Marine Corps' AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter EAST COUNTY — Two pilots were killed when a Marine AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter carrying live ordnance crashed in a remote area of Cleveland National Forest, about six miles east of Pine Valley, on Tuesday night. The crash sparked a brush fire that is still burning, but it poses no threat to any structures. On Wednesday morning, firefighters were ordered to stay back due to unexploded munitions, said Brian Rhodes, a U.S. Forest Service battalion chief. The helicopter, from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, went down about 11:45 p.m. Tuesday night, said Marine Maj. Jay de la Rosa. The squadron was training with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Pendleton and is scheduled to deploy this fall to the Western Pacific. The helicopter, which was flying with at least one other aircraft, took off from an airfield in El Centro about 30 to 40 minutes before the crash, officials said. Firefighters were called to the crash site, about two miles north of Interstate 8 near Kitchen Creek Road, after someone called to report that he heard a large explosion and saw a fire, Rhodes said. That man later told officials he heard a second large explosion about 30 minutes later. When firefighters arrived, they saw a military helicopter circling overhead, Rhodes said. About the same time, they received a call from the military that said an aircraft was missing, the chief said. It crashed in a remote location off a trail accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Firefighters have set up a staging area at Cibbets Flats campground. The fire has burned about 2 acres, with several smoldering hot spots, said Acree Shreve, a U.S Forest Service division chief. Several unexploded weapons are scattered over a large area covered by brush and surrounded by spot fires, Shreve said. This poses a problem to firefighters, who are trying to extinguish the flames, and military investigators, who are trying to access the site to conduct an investigation. “It's an extreme hazard mixed in with a small fire,” Shreve said. The helicopter was carrying several rockets, which are 2.75 inches in diameter, the chief said. The pilots were highly skilled and “at the top of their game,” De la Rosa said. He said his heart and prayers go out to the families of the crew members. “This is a horrible loss,” the major said. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the crash and have not said if the pilots made any distress calls prior to the crash. The identities of the pilots have not been released.