SAN DIEGO — Nine people were feared dead after the nighttime collision of a Coast Guard aircraft on a rescue mission and a Marine helicopter, and investigators Friday tried to solve the mystery of how the air crews failed to see each other in a heavily used military training area.
Military aircraft and ships searched the ocean off Southern California for any sign of the victims while investigators gathered recordings of air traffic controllers and pilot communications. The search covered 644 square miles of ocean but focused on a debris field 50 miles off the San Diego coast.
The crash involved a Coast Guard C-130 with a seven-member crew and a Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra with two aboard as it flew in formation near the Navy's San Clemente Island, a site with training ranges for amphibious, air, surface and undersea warfare. It was not known whether the pilots were aware of each other before the collision at 7:10 p.m. Thursday.
"A tragic event," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "The search is still on, but it's likely taken the lives of nine individuals."
The identities of the crew members were not immediately known. The C-130 crew had survival gear aboard the aircraft, including exposure suits that could have allowed them to survive in the water for hours, Petty Officer Henry Dunphy said.
The Sacramento-based C-130 crew was looking for a man on a 12-foot motorized skiff who was reported missing after leaving Avalon Harbor on Santa Catalina Island to reach a friend on a disabled yacht that had gone adrift off Catalina in high winds Tuesday, authorities said.
The Marine helicopter was flying from Camp Pendleton near San Diego to San Clemente Island, said Maj. Jay Delarosa, a spokesman for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
Two Super Cobras, a type of attack helicopter, were escorting two big CH-53E Super Stallion transport helicopters carrying Marines to the island, Delarosa said. He did not know how many Marines were aboard the transports.
After the collision, the other three helicopters returned to base, he said.
The accident occurred in airspace uncontrolled by the FAA and inside a so-called military warning area, which is at times open to civilian aircraft and at times closed for military use, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor. He added he did not know the status of the airspace at the time.
Minutes before the collision, the FAA told the C-130 pilot to begin communicating with military controllers at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego Bay, but it was not known if the pilot did so, Gregor said.
FAA controllers never communicated with the Cobra pilots, Gregor said.