A CH-53E Super Stallion crashed near Naval Air Field El Centro at roughly 2:30pm local time on Tuesday. An official release from the USMC states that the helicopter belonged to the Third Marine Aircraft Wing based out of MCAS Miramar in nearby San Diego. CH-53s transit through and train in the area regularly. The four crew members onboard the Super Stallion are presumed dead.
It's worth noting that the CH-53 crash occurred just hours after the loss of another Marine Corps aircraft—an AV-8B Harrier that crashed on takeoff in Djibouti, Africa. In that incident the pilot survived, having ejected from the stricken jet as it went out of control.
We have no clue what caused this tragedy but the USMC's neglect of the CH-53 community is something that we have written about for years. A major reset program is underway to recapitalize the Super Stallion fleet and improve its availability that had plummeted to catastrophic levels after a decade and half of hard work in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Army had invested heavily into resetting its helicopter fleet as it returned from battlefield operations overseas, the USMC had budgeted very little for similar services.
But even with the USMC's belated initiative to refurbish its CH-53E fleet, as recently as last November officials from the service told congress that CH-53 fleet was still in a poor state, with only 143 of the type in inventory against a mandated fleet of 200. What's worse is that of that truncated fleet, only 37% were flyable at any given time.
Other major crashes, most notably particularly deadly one in Hawaii, underlined just how low morale was in the Sea Stallion community and how hard sustaining even basic qualifications had become for crews. You can read all about the CH-53's tumultuous recent past and how the type's future still remains bright in this past War Zone feature.
That source of hope comes in the form of the CH-53K King Stallion—a hideously expensive updated variant of the H-53, but one that packs indispensable utility for the UMSC. That helicopter is now progressing through testing at a fairly fast clip but is still at least a year away from entering operational service, and even then it will do so in limited capacity.
The USMC plans on buying 200 King Stallion helicopters to replace its rickety CH-53E fleet. Israel and Germany are also looking into purchasing the helicopter with a prototype having just been airlifted to Germany for display at the Berlin Air Show.
But in the meantime the USMC will have to soldier on with its war-weary albeit slowly recovering Sea Stallion fleet. Hopefully they won't be called into battle in such a sorry state.
An investigation is underway to find out the reason for this horrible incident, we will keep you informed if any new details become available.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com