When an elite Air Force helicopter rescue crew plummeted into a Japanese forest, it didn't just kill an airman and spark an inferno -- it stirred up a diplomatic hornet’s nest for the U.S.
Two U.S. Air Force helicopters looped over a simulated car crash scene in Japan last summer, pulling figure 8's less than 150 feet above a heavily wooded forest. The aircrews had just dropped off a team of four elite pararescue jumpers to the scene for a training exercise, and were roaring overhead in tandem at more than 90 mph. The maneuver was common for such missions, where the "PJs" and the aircrews that transport them practice how to evacuate wounded troops from a battlefield while under fire.
While both HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters circled over the car wreck, one of the helicopters suddenly swerved out of position. When the second helicopter shifted course in response, the pilot of the first Pave Hawk tried to veer away to avoid a possible collision. It was a fatal overreaction: The aircraft, carrying three other personnel, had descended enough to collide with the 50-foot-high trees below. The $38 million Pave Hawk -- call sign "Jolly 12" -- careened downward, smashed into the forest's floor, and rolled onto its right side before coming to rest. The downed aircraft burst into flames, cooking off rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition.
"Once they were in the turn I saw that ... basically they lost trim, their tail sunk down in a very low position, they were at a high angle of bank with their nose pointing up in the air," the co-pilot of the second Pave Hawk later told investigators, according to military documents obtained by Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act. "The next I heard was my flight lead saying 'What the f---? What the f---?' ... at which point I could see the smoke and the crash site just on the other side of the ridge."
The Aug. 5, 2013 crash in a secluded section of Okinawa near Camp Hansen killed Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Smith, 30, the flight engineer aboard Jolly 12. He was a married father with two girls who had served two previous combat deployments to Afghanistan, according to his family. The three other Air Force personnel aboard the helicopter -- including the pilot and co-pilot -- were wounded in the crash, with the chopper's gunner sustaining such severe injuries that he spent three days at a military hospital on Okinawa's Camp Foster, according to military documents. The names of those three personnel -- as well as the crew members of the second helicopter -- were redacted from the Air Force records obtained by FP.
Beyond the human toll, the wreck had serious diplomatic implications. It prompted U.S. commanders to temporarily ground all Pave Hawks -- the Air Force variant of the ubiquitous Black Hawk -- at a time when Okinawan civilians were already protesting the arrival of the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey, a cutting-edge aircraft that can take off like a helicopter, but fly with the speed and range of an airplane. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera demanded that his U.S. counterparts give him proof that the helicopters were safe, a gesture likely intended to help him capitalize politically on the widespread public anger and concern over the deployment of the Ospreys. The Marines temporarily delayed a second shipment of Ospreys to Okinawa, but the aircraft arrived within a few weeks.
In January, the Air Force released a 34-page summary of their probe into the crash, which concluded that mechanical failures were not to blame. Instead, the investigative team headed by Brig. Gen. Steven Basham blamed the co-pilot of Jolly 12 for initially swerving out of position and the pilot for subsequently veering so low to the ground that his chopper collided with the trees below. The two moves, the board found, were factors "substantially contributing" to the disaster.
FP obtained not only the investigation summary, but more than 300 pages of witness statements, inspection reports, and photographs related to the crash. Combined, they provide a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the pressure-cooker world of pararescue. The "PJ" forces involved are the most elite emergency medical responders in the military, trained to parachute, dive, or rappel into chaotic situations to save lives, both during the day and at night. They have been credited with saving hundreds of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The forces involved in the Aug. 5 crash on Okinawa were with the Air Force's 33rd Rescue Squadron, which was preparing to return to Afghanistan. The Pave Hawk they flew was equipped with complex upgraded communications and navigation systems not standard on its sister aircraft, the Black Hawk. The Pave Hawk also carries 7.62mm and .50-caliber machine guns and a beefy cargo hook capable of carrying 8,000 pounds. For rescue missions, it has a hoist capable of pulling a 600-pound load from the battlefield while the helicopter hovers at 200 feet.
As part of the practice scenario, the PJs were supposed to land and evacuate a wounded man from an overturned car that had been tugged into place as a prop. Both helicopters dropped off the pararescuemen, and then circled overhead in a figure-8 pattern commonly known as a racetrack. Role players acting as insurgents walked toward the PJs, and the helicopters overhead simulated that they were coming under fire from the ground.
It was then that Jolly 12, the downed helicopter, broke right when the other Pave Hawk anticipated it turning left. The co-pilot of the second aircraft responded by maneuvering to the left of Jolly 12, catching the pilot of Jolly 12 off-guard. He veered away, triggering the complex string of events that ended with the Pave Hawk on the ground, engulfed in flames.
"Basically we just watched our Chalk 2 slam into the ground," the co-pilot of the other Pave Hawk later recalled to investigators, talking about Jolly 12. "After that we gathered our thoughts, knew what we had to do. We went immediately back to our [infiltration] point with the PJs, we called a 'knock it off,' told them we had a real world situation, Jolly 12 had crashed, and that we were coming in to infil PJs -- to exfil PJs from our simulated site and to infil them at the real world crash site."
The site -- about a quarter-mile from the planned landing zone -- was chaotic, the co-pilot said. The Air Force pararescuemen were hoisted down to the crash site, where a fire was growing rapidly. The co-pilot overhead was told that the gunner from the crashed helicopter had been seen on the ground, and was struggling with injuries he sustained, according to a transcribed copy of the Pave Hawk pilot's interview.
"He was just outside the wreckage staggering around," the co-pilot later recalled. "I could not see him. I could only relay what I heard on [the radio]. They packaged him up, said they didn't have eyes on anybody else, but that he was critical. And they made the call that he needed to be sent to a hospital immediately rather than us waiting around trying to see if we could find anybody else, that we had to get him to Foster immediately."
On the ground, the co-pilot of the downed helicopter was able to escape through an opening in the aircraft, although he was later unable to remember the details of how he got out, according to the accident investigation board report. The pilot was initially stuck, but he made it out of the Pave Hawk after taking off his life vest.
The gunner in the downed helicopter, meanwhile, was thrown between two seats in the back of the aircraft upon impact. He stumbled out of the wreckage by using the basket-like stretcher in the back of the Pave Hawk as a ladder to climb up and out of the helicopter's left-hand cabin door. It is not clear if any of them saw Smith, who was on the right-hand rear side of the Pave Hawk when it crashed and rolled onto its right side. It's also not clear if he died in the collision or the subsequent fire.
Some witness statements were removed from documents released to FP by Air Force legal staff. But the co-pilot of the other Pave Hawk told investigators that after they delivered the seriously injured gunner to the hospital, they "raged back" to the crash scene to provide additional help. The helicopter picked up the pilot and co-pilot of the downed Pave Hawk, along with a combat rescue officer who had been left on the scene to help. One PJ from the second Pave Hawk also had been left on the ground, and his aircrew was concerned he'd be harmed by the fire burning near the crash site. Photographs released to FP show heavily charred wreckage, destroyed trees and scorched earth.
The remains of Smith, the fallen airman, were found the following day, Air Force officials said. He had deployed to Afghanistan twice previously, and appeared in a 2012 photograph depicting a daring rescue of an injured commando from the notoriously violent town of Kamdesh. He and his wife, Jessica, also went above and beyond to look out for younger airmen, his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, later recalled.
"Smitty was a mentor to all the young airmen and pilots; he was a father figure to those that didn't have one," Ortiz said. "He and his wife took care of those in need. They always had lots of single airmen over to his house."
Top image by JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
Other images released to Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act