Military grapples with aviation crashes that have killed 16 in less than a month

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The military is grappling with a series of high-profile non-combat aircraft crashes in the past month that have killed 16 service members.

In Mid-March, two Virginia Beach-based Naval aviators were killed when their F/A-18 Super Hornet went down just one mile off the runway on final approach to Boca Chica Field at Naval Air Station Key West.

LCDR James Brice Johnson and LT Caleb Nathaniel King from Strike Fighter Squadron 213 were remembered and honored across Hampton Roads.

A day after the Navy Super Hornet crash, a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq, killing all seven service members on-board.

The Department of Defense identified the service members as Captain Mark K. Weber, 29, of Colorado Springs, Colorado; Captain Andreas B. O’Keeffe, 37, of Center Moriches, New York; Captain Christopher T. Zanetis, 37, of Long Island City, New York; Master Sergeant Christopher J. Raguso, 39, of Commack, New York; Staff Sergeant Dashan J. Briggs, 30, of Port Jefferson Station, New York; Master Sergeant William R. Posch, 36, of Indialantic, Florida; and Staff Sergeant Carl Enis, 31, of Tallahassee, Florida.

In early April, two incidents involving Marine Corps aircraft in the East African nation of Djibouti led to all U.S. aircraft being grounded in the country.

The mishaps involved a Marine Corps Harrier jet crashing at the international airport and a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter suffering "minor damage" while landing.

No one was killed in the Djibouti incidents, but they did lead to the cancellation of Alligator Dagger, a military exercise that both aircraft were participating in at the time of the mishaps.

The same day as the Djibouti incidents, four Marines were killed when their CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed in California near the Mexico border.

Capt. Samuel A. Schultz, 28, of Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania; First Lt. Samuel D. Phillips, 27, of Pinehurst, North Carolina; Gunnery Sgt. Derik R. Holley, 33, of Dayton, Ohio; and Lance Cpl. Taylor J. Conrad, 24, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana were identified as the victims.

All were members of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 465, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Miramar.

"The hardest part of being a Marine is the tragic loss of life of a fellow brother-in-arms," said Col. Craig Leflore, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 16.

Last week, the Air Force lost a member of its elite precision demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, when his F-16 jet crashed at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada.

Major Stephen Del Bagno, known by his callsign of 'Cajun,' was taking part in a routine aerial demonstration training flight when the crash occurred.

"His loss comes as a shock to his family, friends and wingmen. We remember Cajun as an Airman, a warrior, a talented fighter pilot and a great friend with more than thirty five hundred flight hours in over thirty different aircraft. He lived to fly and inspire the next generation," said Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, Thunderbirds Commander.

The most recent military aircraft crash happened Friday night at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and involved an Army Apache helicopter.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ryan Connolly and Warrant Officer James Casadona were killed when the helicopter crashed during a routine training flight.

“The Destiny Brigade has suffered a great tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the deceased,” said Col. Craig Alia, the commander of the brigade. “This is an unfortunate event, and we are saddened by the loss of our fellow soldiers."

On Saturday, Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, released a statement on the series of fatal military aviation crashes.

"Like all Americans, I grieve over the loss of our men and women in uniform, and the tragic deaths of troops killed in aviation accidents over the past month is especially heartbreaking.   What has been evident to me for some time is now becoming clear to the American people. The readiness of our military is at a crisis point."

“Last month Congress voted to provide our troops the funds they need to begin turning this crisis around. That vote involved painful choices, but Congress was right to make it and the President was right to sign it into law. Given the urgency and importance of this issue, there can be no higher priority for the Department of Defense than ensuring that our aircraft are safe and that pilots get the training they need.  Nothing should divert us from that mission.