Incident Date 19760726 HMH-361 CH-53A BuNo 153313 -
Villa, John Sgt Crew HMH-361 1976-07-26
Rivera, Ruben SSgt Crew HMH-361 1976-07-26
Costa, Anthony David Major Pilot HMH-361 1976-07-26
I will tell you the story as I lived it on 26 July 1976, and what has happened since. I had just received my honorable discharge and was leaving the base on my motorcycle. While coming around a sharp curve, I saw 5 helicopters low to the ground coming towards me. All of a sudden I heard a strange noise,the rear blades on a helicopter stopped working and the copter went spinning and then crashed into the ground. I and a Navy nurse who was right behind me, stopped and jumped out of our vehicles. She was in her car [and still in her nurses outfit]. Major Anthony Costa died on impact as he was decapitated by the blades. I have spent the last 39 years living through nightmares of that day. I thought all 5 had died and then learned recently that 2 had survived their injuries. The injured were the copilot 1st Lt James Leavis and L/Cpl Guy Fish. I have since then tried to locate these 2 Marines and finally found 1st Lt James Leavis who has since retired as Colonel James Leavis who now lives in Virginia Beach, VA. I found his phone number, called him and left him a message about who I was and what I had seen that day. Four days later he called me back and told me his story. I also have the news reports of the accident as well.Source: Personal Interview
Submitted by: Sgt Jerome Dear, first on scene, 20150226
Narrative of Incident
We (my squadron - HMH-361) were going to deploy with 8 helicopters to San Clemente Island, about 50 miles off the coast of California. The purpose was to provide support for a USMC ground unit, a battalion of foot soldiers from Camp Pendleton! They were going to the island to shoot their weapons and maneuver through the hills, firing their artillery and shooting up the countryside. It's really a great training opportunity for them. It's a pretty big deal for us too, because helicopters are pretty manpower intensive and a deployment of that size requires just about all the people in the squadron, lots of support equipment as well as additional augments from without!
We had a lot of trash to haul and the "plan" called for the aircraft to depart in sections (pairs)! I was in the 2nd section, flying as co-pilot for a USMC Major [Anthony D. Costa], who used to fly A-4 jets and had recently transitioned to H-53s. In fact, he was at the Training squadron at the same time I was and graduated a few weeks prior to me and was assigned to the same squadron. He had a lot of flight hours and was a fairly good pilot, but when I had flown with him in the past, I knew that he did not know the aircraft as well as I did. Usually, the "older guys" don't apply themselves as hard as us newbies did. I think he liked flying with me as I did know the systems and he felt comfortable with that. He had asked to fly with me that morning!
We briefed at 5:30 in the morning and I was very excited. I had made the cards with all the radio frequencies on it, plus all of the legs we were supposed to fly en route to the island. The “Plan” called for half of us (4 aircraft) to fly from our airport in Tustin CA to the Marine Base at Camp Pendleton. The others would leave Tustin with all of our own people and all the support equipment and fly directly to the island to set up camp. Our 2 sections of two would get fuel at the air base at Camp Pendleton and slide over to the Helicopter Zones just off the runway and pick up our passengers! We were supposed to carry 1200 Marines from Camp Pendleton to the island that day, 30 per aircraft, as many trips as required over the water to do so.
As things would have it, the first section of aircraft had some maintenance problems and did not launch when they were supposed to. My section, (we were the 2nd aircraft in it) turned up and started to taxi when my crew chief reported a leak (hydraulic fluid) in the back, so we returned to the chocks and shut down. Our lead left us there and we said (via radio) that we would service our machine and meet him at the airport. Things were not going well! I found out in later years that I was in a "sick squadron": one of those squadrons that had poor maintenance and poor performance.
We fixed the leak, turned back up and departed 15 minutes later. We climbed to 2000 feet and headed south. It was a gorgeous day, and to my 23-year-old self, I was in the best and only place I would ever want to be in! En route, we spotted our wingman! He had made an emergency landing in a farmer’s field. He too had a leak and shut down to repair it. He said he was ok and we continued on our way.
When we arrived in Camp Pendleton, I reported a checkpoint and we started a gradual left hand turn towards the ridgeline that separated Camp Pendleton proper, from the coast. We crossed the freeway and one of the gates to Pendleton, and were heading to a group of buildings that overlook the Camp Pendleton Airport. That’s known as a reporting point and when an aircraft wants to land at an airport, he is usually told by the tower to report in when they reach that spot. It helps the tower to visually acquire them and slide them into their landing pattern.
I was flying, and reported to the Major, that we had crossed our first checkpoint and that I was ready to switch the radios to the tower frequency and "report in". He Ok’d it and I did just that, reporting my position and altitude, west of the airport. The tower roger'd it and told me to report the checkpoint! I said my usual response and told the major over the ICS that I was going to start my descent from 2000 feet to the 1000 feet I needed to be at the checkpoint.
I lowered the collective (which is the lever that sits on the left side of the seat - it controls the amount of power needed for climb or descent.
As I lowered the collective, I thought I heard or maybe felt a thump in the aircraft. Almost immediately, the aircraft started a slight nose down left roll. I tried to counter that roll by pulling back on the cyclic (stick, aft and right). The aircraft started to turn gradually to the right and the aft right stick did not correct the left down roll. We were accelerating and the nose continued to roll left down and turn right. This is a bizarre flight condition, and to me, it indicated that we no longer had any anti torque. The very large rotor system overhead turns in one direction. The aircraft wants to spin in the opposite section. To counter that, we have a tail rotor that "pushes the aircraft straight". If anything was to happen to that "anti torque" system, as long as you continued to ask the overhead rotors to fly, the aircraft underneath would want to turn right. Also, because of the unique properties of helicopter rotors, the right side of the aircraft flies more than the left. The advancing blade is faster (speed of blade plus forward speed) than the left side speed of blade minus forward speed) this makes the aircraft want to roll left.
Things got very bad, very quick! I reported to Major Costa that we had a drive system failure in the Tail Rotor. He told me to relax (because I was plenty excited) took the controls from me, and told me to turn off a system that helps reduce the strain on the tail rotor. I knew that it had no bearing on what was happening (in my limited experience) but was so used to the god-like Pilots from Flight School, who, in my mind, could do anything, I did what he said.
The very few seconds that it took for this to happen allowed the aircraft to continue to steeply roll to the left and the nose of the aircraft had swung to the right almost 45 degrees. We still continued straight ahead, directly into the ridgeline. (It’s very hard to describe what is happening without a prop! Pick up any object on your desk and try it! It’s odd and un-plane like). The aircraft rolled over! (about six times in rapid succession).
I remember thinking that I was going to die and was hoping that it wouldn't hurt too badly! I decided to be a "good little co-pilot” and started to do my job! I contacted the tower with a Mayday call and gave our location. I started to call out altitude and airspeed, while reminding the Major that we needed to enter an auto rotation (no power free fall-it allows the rotor to turn like a pinwheel, separates the rotor system from the engine driven drive shafts) what this does is reduce the twisting moment to the right and the left roll, a little.
We were now spinning like a top around out central axis and rolling over to the left like we were in a barrel. It was very disorienting, but I was able to keep track by using the aircraft instruments. I noticed that the collective was not fully down, and puzzled, I pushed it all the way to the unpowered position. I told the major that I was going to turn the engines off, to prevent fires on impact (part of the procedures for this emergency).
I remember feeling that things were awfully quiet in the airplane, except for the gosh-awful noise the machine was making as it died. The Major hadn't said one word to me, and it is very easy to talk to each other, even in an emergency like this, as the ICS button is in the handle of the cyclic. The aircraft banged hard (it turns out that we had clipped a hill in the very narrow valley that we were falling into with one of our rotor blades. The accident investigation team was able to determine from these “impact marks” that we were upside down when we clipped the hill. I pulled the speed controls back to turn the engines off, and the aircraft flipped over on its belly.
We were now in a flat spin, falling through the last 200 feet above the ground. I could see a small flat area directly underneath us and as it rushed up at us, I called off the altitude, waiting for the major to start pulling the collective up, as is required in our emergency procedures. This action changes the pitch on the blades, like bringing the nose of a winged aircraft up, causes the aircraft to climb, increasing the amount of lift that the free wheeling rotor blades had, which would cushion the landing. Nothing was happening! The major had allowed the aircraft to fall through the altitude that our doctrine said is the minimum where we should be executing our final landing procedures.
At about 150 feet, I realized that I was all alone. The major had checked out. He was either frozen or dead. I found out later that he was dead - he died when his blood pressure peaked and popped an aneurysm in his brain) I still had my right hand on the speed control handles, and my left hand now on the collective. I gripped the cyclic between my knees to steady it and pulled up on the collective. The aircraft slowed immediately and then landed flat on its belly, still spinning to the right. The blades struck the ground in front of the helo and broke off, bouncing back through the cockpit and striking the major in the legs, chest and head in that order.
One of the blades clipped my ear cup slightly and this turned my head in his direction to watch in shock (everything was in micro slow motion to me) as it lifted him, seat and all up through the Plexiglas ceiling and threw him some 300 yards up the hill. I broke my right wrist when the aircraft hit the ground so I didn't get the speed controls all the way off and could no longer pull them back, so the engines were still on.
The force of the impact caused our little auxiliary engine that we use for starting the bigger ones, to fall through the overhead and into the back of the aircraft in the passenger section where my crew sat. It exploded and I sat back into my large metal winged chair and covered my face with my gloves to keep from sucking in flames! I felt the fire burning me through the small slit in the back of the chair where my seat belts came through.
I remember thinking "James, you have to get the hell out of here"! The funny thing is that at this point, I don't remember anything for a space of a few minutes. I found out later that I too, pulled the handle and climbed out my emergency egress window. I had never done that before, even in practice, and am surprised that I had done so without remembering it.
We had crashed in the mouth of a very narrow and steep canyon. We were probably in the only flat area within ½ mile and mere yards from power lines. I came back to the world of the living when a Nurse (in white Nurses garb) was pulling me around to look at her, saying "leave them go Lieutenant! They're dead”! I looked down and saw that I had two of my crewmembers and was dragging them by their flight harnesses away from the burning helicopter! This Nurse had been driving to work at the base hospital when my falling helicopter almost knocked her off of the ridge road that she was driving on! Another coincidence?
I was about 200 yards away from the machine that was still growling and the rotor head was spinning slowly without blades. A very surreal sight! I dropped my comrades and she bent to them while I started to wander around looking for the Major. I remember that a Marine Captain had shown up, he was out running with his troops and saw the helicopter cartwheeling out of the sky. He was there within minutes. His troops were all around the aircraft and I bellowed at them (with frightening language) to get away or they too would be dieing today!
A helicopter arrived from Camp Pendleton with some Medical people. I was made to lie down (I was sort of a prick, and wasn't going anywhere until I could account for my crew). There was another guy in the helo with me. He was one of those augmentees from outside the squadron, a sergeant with a wife and small children. He was bleeding internally and squeezed my hand as we flew to the Hospital on base. I told him that everything was going to be all right, now! I was wrong! He died shortly after we arrived at Pendleton! Afterwards, people told me that I was a hero and wrote me up for an award! I didn't get it! I saved no one but myself!
I was 23 years old! I convalesced for 11 months, but eventually returned to flying. The Navy tried to discharge me medically, saying that I had ruined my back and I fought it until they allowed me to get back on Flight status again.
Submitted by: Alan H Barbour, Research Historian, USMC Combat Helicopter Assoc, 20150226
U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File
Anthony Costa in the U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010
Name: Anthony Costa
Birth Date: 16 Nov 1941
Death Date: 26 Jul 1976
Branch 1: M
Enlistment Date 1: 8 Aug 1962
Release Date 1: 1 Mar 1967
Branch 2: M
Enlistment Date 2: 9 Jul 1968
Release Date 2: 1 Jun 1971
We had never met in person,but for the last 38 years, nightly that horrible and tragic helicopter crash that took you and Ssgt Rivera and Sgt Villa and wounded 1stLt Leavis and LCpl Fish,has played over and over in my dreams. I should say nightmares. I thought that all 5 of you were killed. I recently learned 2 survived thank God. I wish all 5 had. I feel like I have some peace after putting names to the Marines I saw die that day and who were wounded. Major Costa Sir R.I.P. and SEMPER FI
Submitted by: Sgt Jerome Dear, first on crash scene, 20150226
Oregonian, The (Portland,OR)- July 30, 1976
"COSTA--Major Anthony D., USMC, late of Calif., formerly of Oregon City; father of Aaron and Nadia, both of Calif.; brother of Jay, Oregon City and Bill, San Jose; Laurie L., Oregon City; son of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Costa, Oregon City; grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Al Fox, Portland. Portland services Saturday at 10 a.m., Chapel of HOLMAN-HANKINS-RILANCE, Oregon City. Internment Mt. View Cemetery. Full Military Honors will be by the U. Staff, 65h Engineer Battalion, Portland."
Oregonian, The (Portland,Or)- July 26, 1976
CRASH KILLS OREGON PILOT
Maj. Anthony D. Costa, 35, who listed his home address as Oregon City, was one of the three Marines killed Monday when a helicopter he was piloting crashed and burned on the northwest edge of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Two other crew members were injured.
Marine spokesman said the CH53 Sea Knight, the corp's largest helicopter, was on "routine training exercises" when the accident occurred. The helicopter, which is used to transport troops, was on its way to pick up a contingent of soldiers. An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the crash."
Family Recollection and Tribute
I was weeks away from turning 2 yrs old when my father John was killed in this accident. He was 22 yrs old. His rank Sgt E-5. I only know my father through pictures and the stories told by my family. Every year around the anniversary of this accident I always go online to see what I can find and never have any luck. Until this year 7/26/18. I found this story. It was very hard to read. Especially the end of the statement given by Col James Leavis. I knew he was speaking of my father. The soldiers flying that day did not know my father because he was filling in for somebody else that day.
I immediately emailed through contacts on the home page of Popasmoke and promptly received a reply from Wally Beddoe who was very kind and did all he could to help me. I managed to locate and find Brian Fish. He was very helpful as well. I made contact with the son of Sgt Jerome Dear. I even was able to speak with Col James Leavis on the phone! I know this accident is still very difficult to those involved in any capacity and appreciate the support. To hear from those involved has set me through a mourning phase that I never had. Hard to mourn somebody you don't know. I know that it can be extremely difficult to think and talk about it so I am grateful. Here is a little about my father John Holguin Villa
Sgt E-5 age 22 at the time
He grew up in Visalia, Ca where the entire family still lives. His parents passed last year 3 weeks apart. I know how hard it was on my grandmother and his entire family, especially for my mother. Even though we lived in the same small city,...eventually my mom stopped letting me visit. I believe it was just too difficult for her and she couldn't handle seeing me cry and asking so many questions because it was still difficult for her. She did get married a few years later and my "step father" was and has been an amazing father. I only refer to him as step father when clarifying me having 2 fathers.
I just turned 44 yrs old yesterday! 8-13-74 I have 2 kids ages 6 & 9 and I have been married for almost 14 years. So to finally get to have some closure ... I consider myself lucky. I want to thank each and every man/soldier that has helped me with this.
I send my prayers of peace for those who still have a difficult time with this memory. I especially thank Col James Leavis for being there with my father. Other than hospital personnel , he was the last to be with my father.
Find A Grave Memorial - Anthony Costa
Mountain View Cemetery
Plot: Section I, Blk 5, Lot 16, Grave E
Created by: OC Pioneer
Record added: Mar 18, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 87003636
SSgt. Rivera's first name was Ruben, I believe?
He was new to our squadron. I had only been onboard the squadron for 4 months at the time of the crash. I came from HMT-301. I think we were already in the fuel pits when the crash occurred. I do not believe we had taken on any pax as we probably had just arrived on station. I was one of the Marines left at the site to guard the wreckage until it could be moved to a hangar for the crash investigation.
I was one of three or four that retrieved the Major's [Tony Costa] pilots seat (armor plated and very heavy) from a hillside above the wreck, There was a large puddle of blood settled in one corner of the seat. At the time I arrived on site the injured and dead were already removed?
The reason I saw any of this and even thought of this in depth was a re-connection with a fellow squadron mate who worked in S3. He is having some problems with how the aftermath of this accident has affected him.
CONTACT: Befish40@yahoo.comSubmitted by: BRIAN FISH, Guy Fish/ Brother, 20150503