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Coast Guard: Search for missing sailor called off

Friday - 1/10/2014, 3:36am  ET

In a Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 photo provided by the U.S. Coast guard, the crew aboard the Coast Guard cutter Shearwater searches for a sailor who has been missing since a Navy helicopter with five crew members aboard crashed in the ocean off the Virginia coast Wednesday, about 20 miles east of Cape Henry, Va. Two Navy helicopters rescued four of the five crew members and the Coast Guard continues to search for the fifth person. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Fireman Samantha May)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) -- Rescuers called off their search Thursday for a sailor missing since a Navy helicopter with five crew members aboard crashed in the ocean off the Virginia coast, the Coast Guard said.

Two people died in the Wednesday crash, and two others were hospitalized.

The Coast Guard had searched an area of 500 square miles by air and sea for more than 30 hours before calling off the active search at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, said Capt. John Little, Coast Guard section commander.

The Navy also sent out two helicopters to assist with the search.

"We're not actively looking, but we have an on-the-scene presence," Little said. He said the frigid temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Virginia Beach, contributed to the decision to end the active rescue effort.

The Navy issued a news release late Thursday identifying the missing pilot as Lt. Sean Christopher Snyder, 39, of Santee, Calif.

Snyder's wife asked the Navy to make his name public after some news outlets began reporting it, according to the news release. A statement from the family included in the release described Snyder as a "decorated pilot, a man of honor, dedicated husband, and father, who is proud and grateful for his privilege to serve his country in the United States Navy."

Of the two survivors, one was released from the hospital Thursday, and the other could be released as soon as Friday, said Capt. Todd Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic at a press conference Thursday. He declined to identify the survivors.

The sailors who died were Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, of Greensboro, N.C., and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25, of Truckee, Calif. Van Dorn was a pilot and Collins a crewman on the flight, Flannery said.

Van Dorn and Collins were among four crew members hoisted from the 42-degree waters Wednesday by a Navy helicopter.

The Navy identified the aircraft as an MH-53E Sea Dragon assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fourteen based at Naval Station Norfolk. In July 2012, two crew members were killed when the same model helicopter crashed into a canyon in the Gulf nation of Oman while lifting a downed aircraft.

The Navy has sought to retire Sea Dragons for years. In 2007, the Navy had planned to begin retiring the aircraft in 2015. Plans now call for Sea Dragons to remain in use through 2025, according to military and congressional documents.

The heavy-duty helicopters typically tow a heavy "sled" that is used in mine clearing operations and sometimes for heavy lifting. The Navy has said that Wednesday's crash occurred during a routine training exercise for mine countermeasures.

According to the Naval Air Systems Command website, the three-engine helicopter searches for sea mines and does onboard delivery missions. The 99-foot craft holds a crew of up to eight, including two pilots and is capable of speeds of more than 170 mph.

It was not immediately known why the chopper, which weighs up to 34 tons, went down, Flannery said. An investigation is already underway.

During Thursday's press conference, Flannery said the Sea Dragon "has been a workhorse for the Navy for over 30 years" and that the Navy has invested significant resources in the copter over the last two years.

"I look forward to its continued service in the fleet," he said.

Matthew Robinson, an air safety investigator from Denver with Robson Forensic, has twice investigated MH-53 crashes when he worked for the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk. He said there is nothing inherently dangerous about the helicopters and was skeptical of statistics showing a higher crash rate in recent years for Sea Dragons. He also said the mine-clearing missions conducted by those aircraft are not necessarily any more dangerous than other missions.

He said it may take several months for the Navy to complete its investigation, which is complicated by the necessity of conducting a salvage operation in the Atlantic to reclaim the wreckage.

"I have the utmost confidence in the investigators at the Naval Safety Center" to do a thorough job investigating the crash, Robinson said in a phone interview.

Another expert, Alan Diehl, who has been of critical military investigations of aviation mishaps, said he believes the military safety centers do a better job than they used to, but still lack the independence of the civilian investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"They really need a military safety board, independent of the services," said Diehl, of Albuquerque, N.M., who previously served as an Air Force investigator.

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