An incident involving two Army helicopters that killed a medical evacuation pilot at a Fort Stewart, Georgia, airfield last week was not an accident and is under criminal investigation, Army Times has learned.
Capt. James Bellew died March 30 at about 2 a.m. in an “incident” involving two HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters at Wright Army Airfield, a dual-use airport between Fort Stewart and the city of Hinesville.
A source with knowledge of investigative efforts told Army Times that the incident was “not an accident.” Army Times granted the source anonymity in order to freely describe an ongoing investigation.
A spokesperson for 3rd Infantry Division, Lt. Col. Lindsey Elder, said the service’s Criminal Investigation Division is probing the crash. CID also has support from Army Combat Readiness Center safety experts.
CID’s continued involvement indicates that criminal activity is suspected in the crash, according to Army accident investigation regulations. CRC experts typically lead routine accident inquiries, but an “accident investigation will be discontinued if the evidence indicates that the incident was the result of a criminal act,” the regulation reads.
Wright is not the primary base for the 3rd Infantry Division’s combat aviation brigade, which is headquartered approximately 30 miles northeast at Hunter Army Airfield near the city of Savannah. However, MedEvac crews rotate through 24/7 duty shifts at Wright in case of an emergency on the larger post.
Bellew was on MedEvac duty the night of the incident, Elder confirmed in a statement to Army Times.
“Capt. Bellew was the only crewmember involved in the incident and he was the only one injured or killed in the incident,” explained Elder. “The initial indication is that all other crewmembers were asleep at the time of the incident.”
It’s not clear how Bellew was able to start at least one helicopter without waking the crew or otherwise alert others who may have been on or around the airfield, such as emergency services personnel or air traffic control staff.
Various narratives of the events that followed have emerged in closed social media groups and a since-deleted blog post. However, all of the narratives described the event as an intentional destruction of both aircraft. Army Times could not independently verify the details of the crash sequence or Bellew’s intentions.
“At this point, we cannot address the manner of the damage to the two aircraft, timeline of events, or the response from the tower and emergency services, as those details are still considered part of the active investigation,” Elder said. “No further information will be released at this time to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.”
‘An immeasurable tragedy’
In the wake of Bellew’s death, tributes to the 26-year-old pilot poured out from colleagues and superiors alike.
“We have been overwhelmed by the support and condolences on this tragic event and ask that people respect the desire for privacy and time to grieve by the Bellew family, as well as our soldiers,” said Elder.
Bellew’s brigade commander described Bellew as a top officer in his unit.
“The loss of James is an immeasurable tragedy to his family, friends, crew and fellow soldiers,” said the commander, Col. Eric Vanek, in a release. He also highlighted Bellew’s MedEvac role as “one of the noblest professions imaginable...a role where he was constantly helping, and saving the lives of others.”
Former subordinates also eulogized Bellew as a compassionate, strong leader in comments responding to the press release identifying him.
Bellew entered the Army in 2017 through the University of Virginia’s ROTC program, completing a tour in South Korea as a medical service officer before being selected for the MedEvac pilot program in 2019.
His individual decorations and badges included an Army Achievement Medal, the Expert Field Medical Badge and the Army Aviator Badge, in addition to various service awards and ribbons.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.