The body of a Marine crew chief who fell from an MV-22 Osprey during training Monday night was located late Tuesday afternoon in Bladen County.
The Marine’s body was found about 24 hours after he fell from a New River Air Station-based Osprey during a training mission, according to Marine officials.
“At this point, it appears he died as a result of the fall,” Mike Barton, deputy director of public affairs for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, said late Tuesday in a statement.
Marine officials say the details surrounding the incident are under investigation.
“We deeply mourn the loss of a member of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing family today. I’d like to extend my sincerest condolences to the family and loved ones of our Marine,” Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general, said in a statement. “I also want to extend my thanks to the community for their tireless efforts throughout this search. Without your cooperation, we could not have brought closure to this phase of such an unfortunate incident.”
On Tuesday, more than 100 Marines and hundreds of civilians, law enforcement professionals and state personnel searched near White Lake for the Marine.
At a joint command center in White Lake, about an hour and a half west of Jacksonville, the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office and EMS, North Carolina Parks, Forestry and Highway Patrol and the White Lake Fire Department worked with the Marine Corps in the search.
Government officials in White Lake and Bladen County did not wish to comment on the search.
Marine Corps officials have not confirmed whether the Marine was wearing a harness at the time of the fall, due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
Rebecca Gonzalez, 24, of Jacksonville, spent her time in the Marine Corps as an aviation ordnance technician and flew countless hours in a helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, as an aerial observer.
According to Gonzalez, the gunner’s belt, a harness that keeps air crew strapped into helicopters, should have prevented the Marine’s fall.
Safety procedures, she said, include pre-takeoff checklists that ensure that all cargo is strapped down, passengers are seated and wearing harnesses and that the entire crew is wearing gunner’s belts. The belt is anchored to the frame of the helicopter; and if a Marine were to fall out while properly wearing a defect-free belt, he or she would “dangle” from the helicopter, but would not fall to the ground, she said.
Marines, she said, are allowed to unharness themselves to move about the cabin, but must first notify the pilots to ensure that they do not aggressively maneuver the aircraft, a measure Gonzalez said is to prevent injury within the helicopter or falls from the aircraft.
“It is not impossible to fall from a helicopter when you are doing crazy banks or if (the helicopter is) on fire because you’d do hard turns,” Gonzalez said. “You could potentially fall out of the aircraft unintentionally, but you would have the gunner’s belt to hold you from falling to the ground. So, while it is possible to fall out, if you’re properly harnessed in, falling to the ground can be prevented.”
Safety procedures, according to Gonzalez, are taught from day one. Crews are given frequent briefs and are tested prior to becoming a crew chief on the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization, or NATOPS, a guideline that prescribes general flight and operating instructions for all U.S. naval aircraft and related activities. Gonzalez said recertification is required and inadequate familiarization with the NATOPS would result in not being allowed to conduct flight operations.
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.