SPOKANE, Wash. - An Air Force report into the crash of a Pave Hawk helicopter in which North Idaho airman Staff Sgt. Afton Ponce was killed concluded Wednesday that bird strikes against the helicopter caused the crash in early January.
Ponce was among the four airmen killed when their helicopter crashed on January 7, 2014.
On January 7, two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters assigned to 56th Rescue Squadron, 48th Fighter Wing based out of RAF Lakenheath were participating in a nighttime training exercise involving the simulated rescue of a downed F-16 pilot.
The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, which is based off the UH-60 Black Hawk airframe, is used for combat search and rescue missions and typically carries a four-person aircrew of pilot, co-pilot and two special mission aviators who serve as both engineers and gunners.
The report, released Wednesday, found that the mishap helicopter – the second aircraft in a two-ship flight – was flying at 110 knots at 110 feet above the ground when a flock of geese, in the Cley Marshes in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, likely startled by the sound of low-flying approaching helicopters, took flight. At least three of the geese crashed through the windscreen of the HH-60 Pave Hawk, striking the pilot and co-pilot, Capt. Christopher Stoever and Capt. Sean Ruan, rendering them unconscious.
With the flight crew unconscious the aircraft slewed to the left, rolled over and crashed into the ground approximately three seconds after it was struck by the geese, killing Stover, Ruan, Tech Sgt. Dale Matthews and Ponce. The lead aircraft immediately orbited around after the crash, landed and its air crew immediately began searching for survivors.
The report also found that Ponce had also been hit by the geese during the bird strike and was rendered unconscious prior to impact. Matthews was the only one conscious after the strike in the moments prior to the crash, according to the Air Force investigation.
Ponce attended Priest River Lamanna High School and graduated in 2003. Ponce joined the Air Force after high school, graduated from the Community College of the Air Force in 2007 and completed Airman Leadership School in 2010. Prior to deploying to RAF Lakenheath Ponce had been assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
She is survived by her husband, Andy Ponce, and two children.