Yorktown Marine killed in helicopter accident at Camp Lejeune

A Marine based at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown was killed Wednesday in a helicopter accident at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis, 31, died and 11 others were injured in an accident that Marine officials are calling a “hard landing” during a helicopter ropes training exercise. Lewis was from Fauquier, though some of his family lives in Warrenton, according to a statement from the Marine Corps.

Col. Jeffrey Kenney, officer in charge of the Expeditionary Operations Training Group, held a news conference Friday to provide more details about the accident.

“We are deeply saddened at the loss of one our students and fellow Marines,” Kenney said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as we all mourn this tragic loss of life.”

The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed around 9 p.m. Wednesday at Stone Bay landing zone, a Camp Lejeune satellite training area, the Marine Corps statement said.

A “hard landing” is what the Marines call when an aircraft hits the ground faster and with more force than a typical landing.

Wednesday’s training, called “Helicopter Ropes Suspension Techniques,” allows Marines to enter and exit locations where aircraft can’t land because of terrain.

About 20 Marines were participating in the exercise, in which they were supposed to exit the back of the helicopter by a suspended rope hovering above the landing zone, according to the Corps.

The service did not say what may have caused the helicopter to crash. The Associated Press reported that Lewis was inside the helicopter when he was killed.

Lewis was airlifted to Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune where he was pronounced dead. Eleven others were injured, though all but two have been treated and released, the Marine Corps said.

Lewis was assigned to Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team, Company B, Marine Corps Security Forces Regiment in Yorktown. Lewis joined the Marine Corps in 2006 and served in the communications field as a radio chief, the Corps said.

He’d previously deployed with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., served in Bahrain, and served aboard the USS Rushmore, a dock landing ship that carries both sailors and Marines.

His awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal, two Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation medals, three Marine Corps Good Conduct medals, National Defense Service medal, Iraq Campaign medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary medal and Service medal, Humanitarian Service medal, and three Sea Service ribbons.

Lewis was excited about the training and had also been looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend, he told Sgt. Charles Brabec, a radio chief with the Bravo Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team Company of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, in a conversation they had the day Lewis died.

The two had worked together when Lewis was in charge of the communications section at the Bravo company as the communications chief.

“He cared tremendously about the Marines under his charge, and held all of us, including himself, to a very high standard,” Brabec said in an interview distributed by email by Marine Corps officials.“Not once did I ever hear anything negative come from him. He was a tremendous man.”

A 2003 edition of the Marines' manual for Helicopter Rope Suspension Techniques acknowledges the dangers, warning of the potential for injury or death, the Associated Press said. It also discusses how nighttime operations can be a challenge, lays out safety procedures and primes Marines on how wind from the helicopter's rotors can affect them.

The weather appeared to be calm at the time. Skies were clear, winds were less than 5 mph and the temperature was 79 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

The helicopter was assigned to Heavy Helicopter Squadron-464, Marine Aircraft group-29, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The Super Stallion, a massive, heavy-lift helicopter, is the largest in the military and considered the Marine Corps' workhorse. It stands nearly three stories tall and has a top speed of 172 mph.

It was used in Afghanistan and Iraq to ferry troops and equipment to remote bases.

In 2005, a CH-53E went down in bad weather in western Iraq, killing 30 Marines and a sailor. At the time, it was the worst loss of life for the Marines since the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 220 Marines.

Military officials said in 2005 that the model's safety record was on par with other Marine Corps aircraft.

In April, a Marine Corps CH-53E had to make an emergency landing on a California beach after a low oil-pressure indicator light went on in the cockpit during training. It didn't cause any damage or injuries.

In March, a Black Hawk crashed in a thick fog during training off Florida, killing 11 service members. The military said two National Guard pilots became disoriented while switching from visual-based to instrument-based flight procedures.

Portions of an Associated Press report were used in this story. Rockett can be reached by phone at 247-4942.

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