Engine failure led to fatal Army helicopter crash in Afghanistan, investigation finds


Soldiers hover in an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter during a training exercise at Fort Riley, Kan., on Nov. 15, 2012. An Army investigation found that a fatal March 16, 2013, crash involving a Kiowa in Afghanistan occurred after an engine failed during a test-fire exercise north of Kandahar Airfield. (Army photo by Capt. Drew Cochran)

Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 James E. Groves III’s helicopter had completed a dive during a test-fire exercise north of Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan when trouble erupted. The main rotor of his Kiowa Warrior OH-58D wasn’t spinning quickly enough to keep him airborne, and a warning alarm went off as he attempted to climb from a height of about 200 feet.

“Whoa!” Groves said as the helicopter’s nose pitched left. He told a fellow aviator on board to man the throttle as he grabbed the controls, but it didn’t make a difference. “Alright, we’re going in!” he yelled over the radio. “We’re going in!”

Those details are included in the results of an Army investigation released to Checkpoint through the Freedom of Information Act. The helicopter — a nimble, heavily armed aircraft frequently used to support ground troops caught in firefights — crashed seconds later on March 16, 2013. Groves was killed, and his co-pilot, whose name is redacted from the report, was seriously injured.

The incident was not their fault, investigators determined. Rather, it is most likely that a digital electronic engine control did not automatically send more fuel to the engine when the rotor slowed down, putting the aviators in a situation from which they could not recover, the investigation found.

The crash occurred nine seconds after the warning alarm in the helicopter sounded in an area some 8.5 miles north of Kandahar Airfield, a massive coalition base, in what troops called the Northern Test Fire Area, according to military documents. Groves, 37, was married and a father of two, and was on his fourth deployment, according to media reports at the time of his death. He was with the Army’s 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade.

Witness statements included in the investigation’s report describe a frantic effort to get to the “ball of twisted aluminum” that was the wreckage and check on Groves and his fellow soldier. A civilian helicopter and at least two UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters landed to help, and one soldier said some of them “took off in a dead sprint” toward the crash site, despite uncertainty about whether or not ammunition on board might explode.

Fellow soldiers told investigators later that Groves was one of the best and most experienced Kiowa pilots they had ever served with.

“They also stated that if CW3 Groves could not recover the aircraft, it was not due to pilot technique but because the situation was unrecoverable,” the investigating officer wrote in his report. “In their opinion the malfunction could not have happened at a worst place in the the flight envelope.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · September 3