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April 2007

USNS Sioux recovers helicopter wreckage, crew
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By James Jackson, SEALOGPAC Public Affairs

USNS Sioux sits pierside
Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Sioux sits pierside in San Diego before getting underway Feb. 15 to recover the wreckage of a Navy MH-60 Knighthawk helicopter. The Knighthawk went down off the San Diego coast Jan. 26, killing all four crew members. James Jackson photo

Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Sioux recently recovered a downed Navy MH-60 Knighthawk helicopter that crashed off the San Diego coast on Jan. 26.

The helicopter, which had four crew members aboard, was conducting routine training operations with Navy Expeditionary Strike Group 5, embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. The body of one sailor was found shortly after the helicopter went down, but the other three sailors and the aircraft were missing at sea.

Following an extensive search for the wreckage, 3rd Fleet tasked Sioux to depart Naval Station San Diego on the morning of Feb. 15 with an unmanned deep submergible robotic drone on board. The drone was configured to support salvage operations.

"We arrived on scene late in the evening of Feb. 15," said Capt. Amy Esqueda, Sioux's civil service master. "However, because we didn't have a dynamic positioning system on board, and visibility was low, we stayed about 200 yards off station to avoid disturbing the site."

The crew of 20 civil service mariners and their four-person military communications detachment were joined by Navy salvage and diving specialists from Naval Sea Systems Command and 10 members from Phoenix International, the operators of the unmanned drone. The team spent the first night at sea finalizing preparations for operations the next day.

"We began salvage operations at first daylight on the morning of Feb. 16, and managed to recover a large portion of the aircraft on our first attempt, including recovering the remains of the three missing crew members," Esqueda said. "Finding the missing sailors was on the minds of the entire crew. It was a big relief being able to bring them on board early in the operations."

The wreckage was located at a depth of 3,700 feet on the ocean floor, and despite a few days of bad weather during the recovery phase, Sioux managed to bring up more than 8,500 pounds of the wreckage, including the aircraft black boxes, according to Esqueda. "All my able bodied seamen who operated our cranes lowered the [unmanned drone] to the exact location each and every time, enabling us to complete the recovery operations a full week ahead of schedule," said Esqueda.

"Although our primary mission is towing, we have the capabilities to assist in deep recovery operations like this one," added Sioux Chief Mate Barry Mortensen. "This was a very challenging mission for us and the crew performed extremely well."

Capt. John Hardison, commodore of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Pacific said, "It was very important for the Navy to recover the aircraft as we attempt to determine the cause of this mishap. Recovering our shipmates will help bring some closure for their families."

Sioux returned to Naval Air Station North Island on Feb. 22 and, in keeping with military traditions, the crew gave final honors to their fallen shipmates as they were piped ashore for the last time.