"It is with a heavy heart and profound sadness that I share the loss of five outstanding Marines from 3d Marine Aircraft Wing and the ‘Flying Tigers’ while conducting a training flight last night," Maj. Gen. Michael J. Borgschulte, commanding general of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said.
The crew was flying a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. The helicopter is typically used for heavy lifting and transportation purposes.
The aircraft was found by civil authorities in Pine Valley at 9:08 a.m. PST on Wednesday. Officials said they managed the search and rescue operation through the Wing Operations Command Center and used ground and aviation searches to locate the aircrew.
The military personnel were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, which is a part of Marine Aircraft Group 16 and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, according to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
On Friday, the identities of the Marines were released by their unit.
- Lance Cpl. Donovan Davis, 21, of Olathe, Kansas, a CH-53E helicopter crew chief.
- Sgt. Alec Langen, 23, of Chandler, Arizona, a CH-53E helicopter crew chief.
- Capt. Benjamin Moulton, 27, of Emmett, Idaho, a CH-53E helicopter pilot.
- Capt. Jack Casey, 26, of Dover, New Hampshire, a CH-53E helicopter pilot.
- Capt. Miguel Nava, 28, of Traverse City, Michigan, a CH-53E helicopter pilot.
Efforts to recover the remains of the Marines and equipment have begun, and an investigation is underway.
"These pilots and crewmembers were serving a calling greater than self and were proud to do so," Borgschulte said. "We will forever be grateful for their call to duty and selfless service. To the families of our fallen Marines, we send our deepest condolences and commit to ensuring your support and care during this incredibly difficult time."
Multiple search and rescue teams from various agencies, such as the U.S. Forestry Division, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) Unit, helped in the mission.
San Diego deputies received a call about 1 a.m. PST Wednesday regarding the missing military helicopter after the aircraft had not shown up at its destination. The helicopter was last seen north of Interstate 8 and Kitchen Road, southeast of Pine Valley, FOX 5 in San Diego reported.
The sheriff's department activated its search and rescue unit and began conducting operations.
The sheriff's department said it was utilizing 4x4 Jeeps to search the area due to the difficult and muddy terrain. There was anywhere from 6 to 10 inches of snow accumulation, with even more snow falling during the search.
When the chopper was reported overdue, the San Diego County Sheriff's Office tried to send a search helicopter. However, the aircraft was called off due to the ongoing atmospheric river. It's unclear if the weather played any role in the missing aircraft.
"We have been confronted with a tragedy that is every service family’s worst fear," said Lt. Col. Nicholas J. Harvey, commanding officer of HMH-361. "Our top priority now is supporting the families of our fallen heroes, and we ask for your respect and understanding as they grieve. The Flying Tigers family stands strong and includes the friends and community who have supported our squadron during this challenging time. We will get through this together."
Editor’s note: An earlier headline on this story prematurely reported a crash site had been found.