Documents obtained by WRAL-TV5 Investigative ReporterStuart Watsonthrough the Freedom of Information Act show that the eight soldiers died, not as a direct result of the crash, but from smoke inhalation during the resulting fire. In fact, the army concluded that the crash itself was survivable, except for the fire which was fueled by ruptured external fuel tanks. The army's own investigators concluded the torpedo-shaped tanks were not crashworthy.
In June, 1996, two Blackhawks collided mid-air at Fort Campbell, Ky, killing six soldiers, but some passengers walked away from that crash. No one walked away from the July 9 Fort Bragg crash. The choppers at Fort Campbell were not carrying external fuel tanks.
Col. Jim Rabon of Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Brigade tells Watson officials found that the July crash was survivable.
In its report on a Blackhawk crash in West Germany in 1993, the army documented that the external tanks ruptured on impact with catastrophic consequences. One soldier died because of the crash, two others from the resulting fire.
Rabon says crashworthiness is a relative term, but he says no one is making a better external fuel tank for the Blackhawk right now.
Rabon says he has made several changes since the July crash. He has cut down on the number of missions in which external fuel tanks are used. In addition, he has also increased training and has ordered pilots to fly at least 100 feet above all objects in their flight paths.
The Blackhawk that crashed at Fort Bragg clipped a pine tree as it was banking into a turn.
Watson was careful to point out that there have been a number of crashes involving Blackhawks where the external fuel tanks have not exploded.
Blackhawks have been in their fair share of training accidents over the years, but they have had more flight time than any other Army aircraft since they were put into service. At Fort Bragg, there have been seven in-air accidents since 1980. In those crashes, a total of 26 soldiers died.
Earlier this year, another soldier was killed during a maintenance check on a Blackhawk at Simmons Army Airfield.