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U.S. Air Force Helicopter History
Afton Marie Thornton Ponce, SSgt., USAF (Fallen)February 22, 1985 – January 07, 2014
US Air Force Staff Sgt. Afton (Thornton) Ponce FE/SMA, assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England was killed during a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crash while performing a low-level training mission on the Norfolk coast, Jan. 7, 2014.
Afton was raised in Priest River, ID and was a 2003 graduate of Priest River Lamanna High School.
A small flock of geese that had migrated to a new area caused an HH-60G to crash off the English coast in January, killing the four airmen aboard.
The crash of Jolly 22, a Pave Hawk assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, rattled the close-knit communities of both the base and the airmen of combat search and rescue.
“We seek to find meaning in their sacrifice,” Col. Kyle Robinson, commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, said at a service shortly after the Jan. 17 crash. “These airmen go anywhere, anytime, under fire. They never sought out the spotlight. They are the quiet professionals.”
Capt. Sean Ruane, Capt. Christopher Stover, Tech. Sgt. Dale Mathews and Staff Sgt. Afton Ponce of the 56th Rescue Squadron were killed in the crash. The accident investigation report, released July 7 by U.S. Air Forces in Europe, details the events that caused the crash.
The crash on the coast
Helicopter crews at Lakenheath receive multiple reports on bird hazards, from the U.K. Ministry of Defense and local wildlife volunteers. They track where flocks have been and areas of high risk. A report from earlier that month showed low bird activity in the area over Cley Marshes. Another report from December showed moderate activity at dusk in an area east of where the crew would be operating.
Volunteers had counted about 400 geese, along with other birds in the region. The plan was to arrive to the landing zone at 5:56 p.m., an hour and 44 minutes after sunset and an hour after the moderate bird hazard warning expired.
The crew took off from RAF Lakenheath at 5:33 p.m., flying to a reserved training area northeast of the base near the English coastline. They donned night vision goggles and flew low, conducting simulated threat countermeasures on their way to rescue the simulated downed F-16 pilot.
Twenty-five minutes into flight, Jolly 22 and the flight lead arrived at the planned location and entered in an orbit in accordance with regular rescue procedures. Winds picked up, coming in at 210 degrees at 20 knots, gusting to 31, and pushing the HH-60s toward the town of Blakeney. This caused a problem with local noise regulations, and the crews were ordered to a new mission area about 1.3 miles north and near the coastline. While the helicopters stayed clear of the Blakeney Reserve, which has reported high bird activity, it sent them close to Cley Marshes in the Wildlife Trust.
What the reports didn’t reflect was that a storm surge the month before had pushed birds away from the Blakeney Reserve and into the Cley Marshes on the coastline, where the Pave Hawks were headed.
At the new location, the formation flew two left orbits. The pilot verified the status of the simulated down pilot and then the aircraft were ordered to a landing zone about 3.5 miles away. The two aircraft flew along the coastline at about 110 knots, at about 110 feet above ground level. Pedro 22 was about 10 seconds behind the flight lead.
The sounds of the Pave Hawks approaching likely startled a group of geese in the marsh, and they took off. No one in the flight lead helicopter saw any birds through their night vision goggles.
About 2.5 miles away from the landing zone, the flock of geese slammed into Jolly 22. Two smashed through the windscreen, knocking out the pilot, Stover, and copilot, Ruane. Another struck and knocked the gunner, Ponce, unconscious.
“The types of geese that hit the [helicopter] weigh between 6 and 12 pounds,” the report states, noting that the birds hit the helicopter at a force of 130 knots. “A bird weighing 7.5 pounds would impact with 53 times the kinetic energy of a baseball moving at 100 miles per hour.”
One bird hit the nose of the helicopter, disabling the trim and flight path stabilization systems — key components of the aircraft’s control system. With no pilots able to take control, and the automatic control systems damaged, the stick of the aircraft was able to move randomly. Accident Investigation Board President Brig. Gen. Jon Norman wrote in the report that Mathews, the sole conscious crew member, did not have time to assess the critical situation because it happened so quickly.
The aircraft began a rapid left roll and lost vertical lift. At 6:05 p.m. — three seconds after the bird strikes — the Pave Hawk crashed into the Cley Marshes. Wreckage covered about 180 feet of the coastline. The crew died on impact.
Almost immediately after impact, the flight lead helicopter reported that Jolly 22 was no longer visible. The chopper stopped all training, attempted to contact the other crew by radio and climbed to a safe altitude. With no response, they circled back and noticed a fire. They landed about 3 minutes and 30 seconds after the crash, and discovered the remains of the crew.
The remains were transferred to a local hospital, and then flown to Dover Air Force Base, Del., with full military honors.
Bird strikes are a constant danger to the Air Force’s fleet. In fiscal 2013, there were a total of 4,230 strikes across the service, costing a total of $46.4 million, a dramatic increase from the cost of $10.2 million in fiscal 2012.
The largest danger comes during low-level flying, with 36 percent of all strikes from 1995 to 2013 happening during this phase of flight, according to statistics from the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard office of the Air Force Safety Center.
The service’s focus on protection from bird strikes largely centers around the flight line, where about 30 percent of strikes happen during takeoff. The Air Force uses pyrotechnic displays, lasers and even dogs to scare birds away.
The investigation report includes an “in memoriam” page for the crew, highlighting that they are credited with saving hundreds of lives and that they were training for the unique mission of Air Force rescue crews when “as the moon lit the English countryside, tragedy claimed their lives.”
“The unique mission of the 56th Rescue Squadron is to search and rescue — to seek out and save the lost, the wounded, and the fallen, day or night, in inclement weather and in the face of hostile forces. These four airmen took flight on 7 January 2014 to be ready, at a moment’s notice and under any circumstance, to find and recover those in need of refuge.”
Mathews, 37, grew up in Rolling Prairie, Ind., and entered active duty out of high school in 1994. He was first assigned to Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and deployed twice under Operations Southern Watch and Desert Thunder with the 552nd Component Repair Squadron. He retrained, became a flight engineer and flew on Mi-17s and HH-60s. Mathews deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Mathews is survived by his wife, Kimberly Mathews; son, Keelan; daughter, Meagan; stepson, Logan, and stepdaughter, Michayla
Ponce, 28, grew up in Priest River, Idaho, and joined the Air Force in 2004. Her first assignment was Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C. She was assigned to the Honor Guard and served in more than 490 ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. She eventually retrained to become an aerial gunner and moved to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. She is survived by her husband, Andy, and sons Maverick and Xavier.
Stover, 28, is from Vancouver, Wash., and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008. He trained at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, and became a helicopter pilot in 2009. Before Lakenheath, he was assigned to the 41st Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. He is survived by his wife, Sarah.
Ruane, 31, grew up in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, and became an Air Force pilot in 2007. Like Stover, his first assignment was the 41st RQS at Moody. He deployed twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. He is survived by his wife, Rachael, and son Liam.
Ruane and Stover deployed to Afghanistan together in 2013 and were part of the rescue crews highlighted in a National Geographic Channel documentary on combat search and rescue teams. A deleted scene from the documentary showed Ruane and other airmen during a harsh workout they planned to honor Pedro 66, a Pave Hawk that crashed June 9, 2010, in Afghanistan, killing five airmen.
Ruane and other airmen are shown on the flight line at Bagram Air Field, running in the heat and lifting. “It’s what we can do when we are downrange and not able to toast them with a couple beers,” Ruane said in the clip.
“As a kid, war is something you run around playing in your yard when you are 6 and 7, and you have your toy guns” he said. “I guess being over here, you realize how real it is. You appreciate life a little more. Being able to sit on your couch with your wife and watching a movie becomes an amazing thing, because you realize how quickly that can disappear when you are over here.”
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