Crewmembers aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk were experiencing issues with a key piece of stabilizing equipment before their helicopter crashed nose down off the Sinai Peninsula during a peacekeeping mission last fall, according to an accident investigation.
The mishap on the morning of Nov. 12, 2020, took the lives of seven peacekeepers — five U.S. troops, a French officer and a Czech soldier. A sixth American survived the mishap and was medically evacuated after being found by rescuers sitting upright amongst the wreckage.
The impact split the Black Hawk into three sections over a 300-foot debris field, according to pictures included in investigation documents released to Army Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Black Hawk’s horizontal stabilator failed multiple times during a two-hour flight and was being controlled manually when the accident occurred, according to the investigation’s field report, which was compiled by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, out of Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The horizontal stabilator is a flap affixed to the tail of the Black Hawk to maintain stable flight. It can operate in either an automatic or manual mode, though it is commonly left in automatic.
Audio recordings aboard the aircraft revealed that a “stabilator anomaly was announced by a crewmember” during the routine reconnaissance mission, the field report stated. When the accident happened, the stabilator was in manual mode and in the wrong position.
The mishap took place after the reconnaissance mission was completed and the crew was delivering a sling-loaded water bladder to a remote site on the island of Tiran, located between the Sinai and Saudi Arabia.
The Black Hawk made a normal approach to the remote sight and executed a “high hover” to set the water bladder down, the field report reads. After doing so successfully, the helicopter departed north, following the descending terrain to the base of the mountain, where it crashed.
Ground forces at the remote sight did not witness the crash, the field report stated, but they spotted the wreckage after impact and reported it to higher headquarters.
Flight data showed that the Black Hawk’s stabilator remained in “down/hover mode” when it transitioned into terrain flight, which caused the helicopter’s nose to pitch downward and strike the level ground. The airspeed at impact was 79 knots.
Despite the anomaly that crewmembers discussed on the audio recordings, the Sinai crash was attributed to human error, said Michael J. Negard, spokesman for the Combat Readiness Center.
“Over the past three years, all UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter class A mishaps have been attributed to human error,” Negard said.
“Human error is a broad spectrum, so we closely examine other factors such as, but not limited to environmental training, crew mix, OPSTEMPO, crew coordination, adherence to established procedures and, ultimately, how air crews manage risk,” Negard added.
The Americans killed in the crash were, Capt. Seth Vernon Vandekamp, 31; Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dallas Gearld Garza, 34; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Marwan Sameh Ghabour, 27; Staff Sgt. Kyle Robert McKee, 35; and Sgt. Jeremy Cain Sherman, 23.
The Czech Republic confirmed their casualty was Sgt. Maj. Michaela Ticha. French officials identified Lt. Col. Sébastien Botta as their casualty.
The flight was part of an international peacekeeping force overseeing the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords, which orchestrated the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai.
Examination of the Black Hawk’s wreckage did not yield any indications of defects to the fuselage, rotor systems, drive systems, flight control system, powerplants, hydraulic system, fuel system or landing gears, the field report stated. There was also no evidence of a post-crash fire.
There were no recommendations included at the end of the field report. The document also did not state whether the stabilator anomaly indicated any systemic issues across the Army’s aviation fleet.
“While the [Combat Readiness Center] does not have proponency for aircrew training,” Negard said of the lessons learned from the mishap, “we continuously share safety data, analysis, and investigation findings and recommendations across the Army aviation enterprise and with senior Army leadership.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.