Marine Corps halts flights for safety review after copter crash

City News Service

The Marine Corps suspended training flights across the Southland Tuesday in the aftermath of a helicopter crash that killed two USMC pilots during exercises at Camp Pendleton.

Capt. Jeffrey Bland, 37, and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann, 27, were piloting an AH-1W Super Cobra that went down for unknown reasons about 1 p.m. Monday in the southeastern reaches of the northern San Diego County military station, according to the Miramar-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s public affairs office.

The two servicemen died at the scene of the accident, which sparked a fast-moving brush fire that blackened about 120 open acres near Fallbrook before military and civilian crews were able to halt its spread.

Bland and Heitmann were members of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd MAW.

On Tuesday morning, Maj. Gen. Thomas Conant, commander of the air wing, ordered a two-day grounding of all training flights at Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, as well as at USMC installations in Twentynine Palms and Yuma, Ariz., USMC spokesman Sgt. Sean McGinty said.

The reason for the operational pause,’' which will end Thursday, was not alack of confidence’’ in Marine air crews or equipment, but rather a decision to review and reinforce safety standards for USMC flight crews and support personnel, the sergeant said.

The only units exempt from the suspension were those actively involved in training operations for imminent deployments to Afghanistan, according to McGinty.

Military investigators, meanwhile, were working to determine the cause of the crash.

As of 8:45 this morning, the smoldering vegetation fire ignited by the helicopter crash was roughly 80 percent contained, said Lt. Ryan Finnegan of Camp Pendleton’s public affairs office.

The blaze, which was confined to military property, caused no reported structural damage or injuries.

We’re not worried anymore that it’s going to go off base,’' Finnegan shortly before noon.

Federal, state and local ground and air crews aided in subduing the fire.

Bland, a native of Champaign, Ill., joined the Marine Corps in June 1997. His military decorations include a Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, Iraq Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Air Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal, two Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals and three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons.

Heitmann, of Mendota, Ill., enlisted in the Marines in May 2008. His awards include a National Defense Service Medal and a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

Lt Col. Robert Morgan, commanding officer of the training squadron to which Bland and Heitmann belonged, asked the public to pray for the families of the warriors that we have lost.’'