By Jean Doran Matua, Editor
Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, was an otherwise normal pre-Holiday weekday. Then tragedy befell the community of Marty, just 7 miles north-northwest of Kimball in central Minnesota.
At 1:55 p.m., about 25 miles away, a Minnesota National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter took off from the St. Cloud air station on a routine maintenance flight. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots initiated a mayday call and contact was lost with the aircraft. The Minnesota State Patrol, Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, and local emergency responders initiated a search-and-rescue operation to locate the helicopter.
There are tracking mechanisms on the aircraft, but they update every so often, not continuously. This is why the general vicinity of the lost aircraft was known, but not a specific location. The initial searches included St. Augusta, Clearwater, South Haven, Kimball, and possibly more, before it was narrowed down to the Marty/Pearl Lake area.
At least one eyewitness reported that the helicopter went down, hard and fast, and that it was not smoking. Even with eyewitnesses, it took nearly two hours to locate the helicopter.
Established pre-accident plans were followed. “We have requirements to check in every so often,” explained senior aviator Col. Shawn Manke. “If that doesn’t happen [and the aircraft becomes overdue], we start a search for the aircraft.” Col. Manke is the Minnesota National Guard’s Director of the Joint Staff, and the most senior Minnesota Army National Guard aviator.
At 4:15 p.m., the downed aircraft was located and all three crew members were accounted for and confirmed deceased at the scene. Final notification of families was completed Friday morning, and the names were released Saturday morning (following a required 24 hours after notification of kin).
The three Minnesota Guardsmen who died in the crash are Chief Warrant Officer 2
Charles Nord, age 30, Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Rogers Jr., age 28, and Sergeant Kort Plantenberg, age 28. Nord and Rogers were the pilots, and Plantenberg was the crew. At this time, the Guard will not state who was the pilot in command.
All three soldiers were assigned to Company C, 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion based in St. Cloud. The unit had been deployed to Kuwait for nine months where they conducted medical evacuations in support of Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve; the unit had returned in May 2019.
Gov. Tim Walz came to Holy Cross School in Marty Thursday evening, Dec. 5, for a press briefing. Himself a 24-year veteran of the Minnesota National Guard, he was clearly emotional about the tragedy. He told the media Thursday, “On behalf of all Minnesotans, we offer our deepest sympathies to the families of these warriors. They paid the ultimate price and service to Minnesota and to the United States of America. Words will never ease the pain of this tragic loss, and the State of Minnesota is forever in the debt of these warriors. I’d like to also thank the law enforcement, first responders, and all the agencies involved in the search and recovery. Your service is deeply appreciated. Your professionalism and care and dignity as you’ve handled the site is commendable.”
Gov. Walz added, “As the governor and as a citizen of this great state, and as a veteran of the Minnesota Army National Guard, my heart breaks for the families, the friends, and the fellow soldiers. The coming days will be dark and difficult. The state of Minnesota stands ready to assist the families of our fallen heroes.”
A safety investigation team from the United States Army Combat Readiness Center, headquartered at Fort Rucker, Ala., is leading the investigation. The local National Guard is assisting them in this investigation, and a senior aviation officer has been assigned to serve as a liaison officer with this team. They arrived from Alabama late Friday night/early Saturday morning.
“Investigations of this nature do not have an assigned duration, and we will not speculate on an estimated completion date,” explained Major General Jon Jensen, Adjutant General for the Minnesota National Guard.
During this initial phase of the investigation, all UH-60 helicopters in Minnesota have been grounded.
Right now, the investigative team is working in the field at the crash site, conducting the initial assessment; they will bring these facts back to St. Cloud and start compiling the data. Once they have finished the field investigation, the aircraft will be removed, and the investigative team will return to Alabama to consolidate all the data to try to determine what happened.
“The goal of the safety investigation is really to determine what happened so that we don’t have the same misfortune again,” said Col. Manke, “and so that other aviation-type units can learn from this experience, and they don’t have the same type of event occur with them.”
The maintenance flight was routine, and these are conducted almost daily from both St. Cloud and St. Paul. Such flights generally are within 30 miles of the St. Cloud facility, which is why we so often see military helicopters in our area. The exact mission of this flight will be part of the investigation.
Their unit is under the command of the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade currently deployed in Fort Hood, Texas. Brig. Gen. Mike Wickman is the commanding general of the 34th Infantry Division; he and another from the command team arrived to support the unit.
“This is a devastating loss for the families of our deceased soldiers and our entire Minnesota National Guard family,” said Maj. Gen. Jensen. “In the days ahead, our focus will be on taking care of and assisting the Nord, Rogers, and Plantenberg families, providing support to those in our organization who have been impacted by this loss as well as supporting an aviation safety investigation into the cause of this mishap.”
Maj. Gen. Jensen continued, “To the families of our three soldiers, there’s nothing that I can say that will take away or lessen the pain you are feeling. What I can tell you is that you are not alone in your grief. The men of your soldiers’ unit as well as the over 13,200 soldiers and airmen of the Minnesota National Guard, and the people across this state and nation, also grieve with you. The Minnesota National Guard is here to help and assist you in any way we can. We stand with you as you navigate this new reality.”
Maj. Gen. Jensen, who was the primary speaker at Saturday’s press conference, went on to personally thank the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, local first responders, the Red Cross, Holy Cross Church, and several other local community organizations, businesses, and individuals for the support they have given. “Your support is deeply appreciated,” he said. This sentiment was echoed by many.
The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is the most commonly used, multi-purpose helicopter for the U.S. Army. The basic crew for the UH-60 is three: pilot, co-pilot, and crew chief. The UH-60 that crashed near Marty on Thursday, Dec. 5, was outfitted for medevac missions; that is what it was used for during C Company’s nine-month deployment in Kuwait earlier this year. On medevac flights, it can accommodate six litters.
The Black Hawk is capable of carrying up to eight fully-outfitted soldiers for troop-carrier missions, in addition to its crew of three; or it can accommodate up to 20 lightly equipped personnel. The maximum gross weight is 22,000 pounds, and the external cargo hook can lift up to 8,000 pounds. It can fly 4.5 hours, with internal auxiliary fuel tanks.
The UH-60 has mounts on each side that can accept a variety of weapons. In medevac mode, the UH-60 is not generally armed.
The UH-60 has tracking mechanisms on the helicopter but, as explained by senior aviator Col. Shawn Manke, it does not update simultaneously. This is why they had an idea of the vicinity of the missing aircraft, but not a precise location.
The UH-60 model began production in 1974 and is still being manufactured. It is used by military around the world, and there are at least 2,100 of them still in use today. The cost of a Black Hawk helicopter, according to Wikipedia is $21.3 million.
The last catastrophic helicopter accident in the Minnesota National Guard was in 1993 when two aircraft collided at Camp Ripley and five Minnesota Guardsmen were killed.
All UH-60 helicopters were grounded following last week’s crash during the initial phase of the investigation, which is standard procedure. “We expect our UH-60s will be flying again shortly,” said Adjutant Major General Jon Jensen on Saturday.