This story was updated Saturday to include the identities of the soldiers who died in the crash.
The U.S. Army on Friday ordered a halt to all non-essential training flights following the crash Thursday of two Apache helicopters in Interior Alaska after the military aircraft collided near Healy returning from a training mission.
Both AH-64 Apache helicopters had two soldiers on board — all from the 11th Airborne Division’s 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks, Army officials said.
The crash, at 1:39 p.m., killed three soldiers and injured one. That soldier was in stable condition at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital on Saturday, a U.S. Army Alaska spokesman said.
The solders were identified Saturday as Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Robert Eramo, 39, of Oneonta, New York; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kyle D. McKenna, 28, of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Warrant Officer 1 Stewart Duane Wayment, 32, of North Logan, Utah.
The crash occurred about 50 miles east of Healy, the Army said.
Two of the soldiers were declared dead at the scene; a third died while being taken to a Fairbanks hospital, Army officials said.
“The loss of these soldiers is devastating and is being felt by family, friends and military communities across Alaska,” said Maj. Gen Brian Eifler, commanding general of the 11th Airborne Division in a written statement Saturday.
The crash marked the second fatal training incident in Army helicopters since March. Nine soldiers were killed in Kentucky that month when two Army Black Hawk helicopters crashed while conducting a nighttime training exercise.
Army Chief of Staff James McConville on Friday ordered a “stand down” that grounds all Army aviators, except those participating in critical missions, until they complete a required training, according to a statement issued by the Department of the Army.
“The safety of our aviators is our top priority, and this stand down is an important step to make certain we are doing everything possible to prevent accidents and protect our personnel,” McConville said in the statement. “During this stand down, we will focus on safety and training protocols to ensure our pilots and crews have the knowledge, training and awareness to safely complete their assigned mission.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what may have caused the crash in Alaska, which is being investigated by a team from the Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Novosel in Alabama, officials say.
The battalion involved in the crash was not flying Friday to allow members to cope with the aftermath, according to John Pennell, a spokesman for U.S. Army Alaska.
“Unit leadership is meeting with all of its its personnel and their families at Fort Wainwright,” Pennell said. “They’re kind of beginning the grieving process and ... explaining what resources are available to the families going forward.”
The investigation that’s just getting underway is expected to provide more details about the circumstances surrounding the crash, he said.
Few details were available Friday including when the crash occurred.
Several Alaska National Guard aircraft responded to the area following word of a possible crash early Thursday afternoon, Guard spokesman Alan Brown said Friday. A KC-135 Stratotanker in the area for an unrelated training exercise out of Eielson Air Force Base broke off and headed to the suspected crash site to help relay information, Brown said.
Then, after the U.S. Army Alaska’s official notification of the crash came in, the Guard launched two combat search and rescue aircraft within an hour, he said: An HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter with a team of pararescuemen, and an HC-130 tanker.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction for skies around the crash area Thursday afternoon through next week to “provide a safe environment for rescue.”
Healy is about 100 road miles south of Fairbanks, and about 250 miles north of Anchorage.
There have been three U.S. military helicopter crashes and a rollover recorded so far this year, in Alabama, Kentucky and Alaska, according to the Associated Press. Military officials are still investigating the causes of the crashes, which involved Black Hawk or Apache helicopters. A total of 14 soldiers have died and three have been injured, all in training missions.
In February, an AH-64 Apache helicopter crashed during takeoff after it stopped to refuel at the Talkeetna Airport, injuring two soldiers. That aircraft was part of a group of four Apache helicopters traveling from Fort Wainwright to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for training.
The Army aviation halt ordered Friday affects the 25th Aviation Regiment and the 52nd Aviation Regiment at Fort Wainwright, according to Pennell.
The Army order also affects the Guard in Alaska, Brown said.
While both the Alaska and Kentucky crashes remain under investigation, Army officials say, there is as yet no indication of any pattern between the two.
The aviation grounding allows the Army to “review the risk approval/risk management process, aviation maintenance training program, aircrew training standardization and management, and supervisory responsibility,” Friday’s statement said. Officials say they will also assess the flight-mission briefing process “with an emphasis on risk mitigation, crew selection, flight planning, crew/flight briefings, debriefings and after-action reviews.”
Active-duty Army units are required to complete the 24-hour stand down between May 1 and May 5, while the Army National Guard and Reserve will have until May 31 to coincide with training schedules, the statement said. Army aviation units will resume normal operations once “any corrective actions are taken on issues identified in safety or training.”