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Full report reveals witness accounts of “orange glow” in sky when RAF Lakenheath helicopter crashed in Cley

17:00 28 July 2014

The scene at Cley next the Sea after an American military helicopter crashed and another landed after the incident.

The scene at Cley next the Sea after an American military helicopter crashed and another landed after the incident. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

Witnesses to the fatal Cley US helicopter crash saw an “orange glow” in the sky before the Pave Hawk helicopter fell to the ground, a full investigation report has revealed.


The 1,876 page document, produced by US investigators, includes transcripts of interviews with witnesses that report seeing a flock of geese being scared into the sky, before a “fireball” was spotted by a secondary helicopter crew.

A summarised report released on July 9 confirmed the cause of the crash to be bird strike, after at least three geese smashed through the HH-60’s windscreen.

Captains Christopher S Stover, 28, and Sean M Ruane, 31, Technical Support Sergeant Dale E Mathews, 37, and Staff Sergeant Afton M Ponce, 28. all based at RAF Lakenheath, were killed in the crash.

One witness, a student who had been in the Dun Cow pub just before the incident took place at around 6pm on January 7, said he saw the aircraft scare a flock of geese before impact.

“It literally dropped, like incredibly suddenly. And I could see this orange glow, this orange illumination.

“And it was very quick; I mean so quick that I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“I knew it was a chopper, it must have been a chopper: and thinking about it, my first thoughts were nothing, no mechanical vehicle, could descend that quickly on purpose, so that must have been a crash. And, you know, just watching it I could hardly believe what I had just seen.”

Report into Cley helicopter crash finds US Air Force pilots knocked unconscious by “multiple bird strikes”

Norfolk helicopter crash: How the tragedy unfolded

Cley helicopter tragedy: In memoriam

The majority of witness statements in the report are from US Air Force personnel.

The instructor pilot of the second aircraft on the fatal training mission told investigators that he spotted a small fire on the ground after the HH-60 aircraft did not respond to radio calls.

“I turned the aircraft around, and probably about maybe half a mile behind us you could see a little bit of a fire.

“It wasn’t huge; but it didn’t look like them because it was really small, a real small fire; but I knew that it was them,” he said.

The pilot said that after landing, his crew conducted a search for surivivors.

“The three of us searched for survivors for about 20/30 minutes and eventually found all of them and took pulses, and there were no survivors. And there was not much we could do beyond that.” he said.

The report includes confirmation that the crews would fly in the Cley and Salthouse area frequently, with one witness saying it was as much as “ a couple of times a week”.

It was also confirmed that the crews did not see the flock of geese before they smashed through the aircraft’s windscreen, causing the crash.

The impact of the crash site on USAF clean-up crews is also documented in the findings, with reports of crew members almost fainting as they struggled to deal with the scene.

A videographer is said to have “slumped over” as she recorded footage of the bodies being removed from the aircraft, while medical crews were said to be left stunned by the aftermath.

The report was released after a Freedom of Information Act request by the BBC.

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