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Navy begins deep-sea sonar scans off California coast to find helicopter wreckage and crew remains

The offshore supply vessel HOS Dominator departs Naval Air Station North Island. (Chief Petty Officer Josue Escobosa/U.S. Navy/TNS)

A Navy undersea search and salvage operation began this week to locate and recover an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter and the remains of the five crew members killed in an Aug. 31 crash near San Diego, the Navy said Thursday.

The Navy estimates the helicopter is on the sea floor 4,000 to 6,000 feet deep, according to the Navy’s San Diego-based 3rd Fleet.

Deep-sea search and recovery operations didn’t immediately begin at the site in the days following the crash because the Navy had to scramble to bring the equipment necessary to search at such depth to San Diego from around the country, said Lt. Sam Boyle, a 3rd Fleet spokesperson.

“The depth and distance from shore make this a complex operation,” Boyle said.

According to the Naval Safety Center, on the day of the crash the Seahawk, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 8, began vibrating side to side upon landing on the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. The vibration led to the aircraft’s rotor striking the flight deck of the Lincoln, which in turn caused the helicopter to crash and fall overboard into the sea.

One crew member on board the helicopter was rescued from the water. Five sailors on board the Abraham Lincoln were also injured.

The Navy declared the five sailors dead after a three-day search.

On Wednesday, the Dominator, a contracted merchant vessel, left Naval Air Station North Island to begin on-site recovery operations with personnel from the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, part of the service’s Sea Surface Command. The recovery team is part of a Navy command that specializes in undersea recovery.

The salvage crew will try to locate the wreck using a shallow-water, side-scan sonar able to reach search depths of 8,000 feet and a towed pinger locator able to find downed aircraft at depths up to 20,000 feet.

While the Navy knows approximately where the helicopter went into the water about 60 nautical miles southwest of San Diego, it has not yet found the wreckage on the ocean floor, Boyle said.

“We’re mapping the (bottom of) the ocean over the area,” Boyle said. “We are making every effort to find the wreckage and the remains of our shipmates.”

The sailors killed in the crash were:

—Lt. Bradley Foster, 29, from Oakhurst, Calif.

—Lt. Paul Fridley, 28, from Annadale, Va.

—Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class James Buriak, 31, from Salem, Va.

—Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Sarah Burns, 31, from Severna Park, Md.

—Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Bailey Tucker, 21, from St. Louis.

In March, a Navy salvage crew recovered a downed MH-60S in more than 19,000 feet of water off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. The crew of that helicopter were able to escape before it sank, the Navy said.

The Dominator and a Navy salvage crew recovered the remains of eight Marines and one sailor in 2020 after a Marine Corps assault amphibious vehicle sank near San Clemente Island. That recovery was at a significantly shallower depth of 385 feet.

An investigation into the helicopter crash is ongoing.

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