Saturday, Sept. 5, 1998 | 10:37 a.m.
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - The Air Force helicopter crews were practicing rescues, going over how to find downed pilots in the dark Nevada desert.
But the two aircraft crashed in the Nevada desert near the top-secret Area 51, killing all 12 people aboard. The wreckage was found at 2 a.m. Friday, 90 minutes after the HH-60G Pave Hawk choppers were due back.
The choppers were flying through the rugged Pintwater Mountains, 6,000-foot peaks that drop 3,000 feet to desert valley floors. Light rain was falling at the time of the crash, said Brig. Gen. Theodore Lay, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis.
It wasn't known whether the helicopters crashed into each other or went down separately, Lay said. Crews were searching the terrain for clues to the cause of the crash.
A support center was set up at Nellis for grieving relatives.
"As we await further information about this terrible incident, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the crew members," Vice President Al Gore said.
The crews were on a standard mission to practice recovering downed pilots. Normally that involves recovering either a crew member or a dummy from the ground, Lay said.
Crew members in such missions are supposed to wear night-vision goggles, which have come under attack in recent years because of their suspected role in dozens of accidents. But Nellis crews use newer goggles that provide more light and three-dimensional views, said Nellis spokesman Mike Estrada.
Tech. Sgt. Richard Covington said wreckage was spread over a wide area but would not elaborate. The area is a bombing range with unexploded munitions.
The helicopters are with the 66th Rescue Squadron, which specializes in rescuing downed pilots and others from behind enemy lines. Units recently returned from duty in Turkey and Southeast Asia, and have seen action in the no-fly zone over Iraq.
The crash site is in the Nellis Range, 5,200 square miles of mountain and desert northwest of Las Vegas that's used for training and test flights. It is not far from Indian Springs, about 55 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The site is also southeast of Area 51, a mysterious section of the range where the F-117 Stealth fighter and other classified aircraft have been tested. The Air Force won't officially acknowledge the existence of the area, shown on some maps as Groom Lake.
Area 51 is a staple of science fiction; UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy buffs are convinced the wreckage of a flying saucer they believe crashed near Roswell, N.M., in 1947 was taken there to be studied.
Previous air disasters at Nellis include the January 1982 crash in which four Air Force Thunderbird pilots slammed their jets into the ground while practicing at Indian Springs. All four were killed when a stabilizer stuck in the lead plane and the three others followed him into the ground.
The HH-60G helicopter, built by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., normally carries a crew of four people: two pilots, a flight engineer and a gunner. Some, including the two that crashed, also carry two rescue crew members.
The Air Force said it has 99 HH-60G helicopters in use at 12 bases in the United States and abroad.
The crash was the 22nd major aviation accident in the Air Force in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, with "major" defined as causing a death or $1 million damage. That has been one of the best records in the military, officials said.
In same 11-month span last year, the Air Force logged 25 major accidents.