Bird strike an unlikely cause of Cley ’copter crash according to Swaffham squadron leader

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A former squadron leader believes it “unlikely” a bird strike caused the helicopter crash that killed four American airmen.

Investigators from the American air force and the Ministry of Defence are trying to piece together what happened on Tuesday night to bring down the HH-60G helicopter at Cley.

Captains Christopher Stover, 28, and Sean Ruane, 31, Technical Support Sgt Dale Matthews, 37, and Staff Sgt Afton Ponce, 28, were all killed in the crash, which happened after a training exercise.

All four were based at RAF Lakenheath with the 56th Rescue Squadron.

Paul Smyth, a RAF squadron leader with 18 years of experience flying Tornado jets, says it is early days for the investigation and there could be a wide range of contributory factors such as the condition of the aircraft and a technical malfunction. But he feels that the helicopter striking a bird would be unlikely.

Coun Smyth, who is the Swaffham ward member for Norfolk County Council, said: “You routinely don’t expect to hit birds at night as much as you would during the day.

“Without having seen any of the evidence from the scene, my impression is that it would be unlikely.

“A seagull could be very damaging for a jet doing 500mph. But helicopters are going slower so it would be slightly different.

“This helicopter was with the special operations unit and those forces are very experienced.”

Capts Stover and Ruane were piloting the helicopter on a routine low level training mission and were flying to the gunnery range at RAF Holbeach when the helicopter came down just before 7pm on Tuesday.

Two of the bodies were removed from the aircraft, which came from the 48th figher wing, and taken to Norfolk and Norwich Hospital yesterday. Norfolk’s coroner will not be conducting an investigation.

Commanding officer Col Kyle Robinson said:“We continue to think of the loved ones who are experiencing such a tragic, sudden loss. The Liberty Wing feels as though it has lost members of its family, and we stand by to support one another and these Airmen’s families during this difficult time.”

Ammunition on the helicopter has been scattered across the crash site, which is the size of a football pitch.

Police have cordoned off the site and there were also closures on the A149. This had affected the Coasthopper service run by Norfolk Green.

Firefighters from Fakenham were called to the crash site on Tuesday.

The nature reserve is owned by Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

A trust spokesman said: “The trust is shocked by the news of a helicopter crash at Cley Marshes nature reserve, and our immediate thoughts are for the families of those who sadly lost their lives.”

West Norfolk has sent its condolences to the families and to the American servicemen who are based at Lakenheath, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Feltwell.

West Norfolk Mayor Elizabeth Watson has sent a special message to the commanding officer. The mayor has fostered links with Leakenheath as servicemen live in West Norfolk.

She said: “My thoughts and prayers are with all at RAF Lakenheath and particularly with the families who have lost their loved ones.”

Hunstanton has strong connections to the USAF after members of the 67th Special Operations Squadron, including Reis Lemming, saved the lives of scores of people in the 1953 floods.

Mayor Elaine Clutton said: “Hunstanton is saddened by this and our condolences go to the USAF.”

John Maiden, who has helped to develop links between the 67th and Hunstanton said: “We share their loss.”

Keith Leesmith, clerk for Holkham Parish Council, who lives in Wells, said: “My question would be if these low-flying jets are out on training exercises, why do they need to be armed? I just wonder why the US are flying over in Search and Rescue planes armed. It would be different if they were RAF.”