NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Black Hawk helicopter crashed last March, killing 11 servicemen, because two veteran Louisiana Army National Guard helicopter pilots got disoriented and lost control while switching from visual-based to instrument-based flight procedures in a thick fog during a training exercise, the military said Thursday.
The pilots, two other Louisiana guardsmen and seven Marines died in the crash off the Florida coast.
"The investigation determined that the direct cause of the accident was spatial disorientation of both pilots, which caused them to lose control of the aircraft," a statement from the Louisiana guard said. "The spatial disorientation was due to the pilots failing to effectively transition from visual flight procedures to instrument flight procedures as thick sea fog rolled into the training area."
The military has not released the full report.
The March 10 crash sparked an intensive search off the waters off the Florida Panhandle where the helicopter went down. Boats scoured the ocean while airmen walked the shores of the Santa Rosa Sound, recovering pieces of clothing and bits of wreckage.
The helicopter was on a training mission designed to allow the Marines to practice getting troops into and out of a target area. They were part of an elite unit trained for operating in grueling conditions and sensitive assignments on land and sea.
The National Guard unit in charge of the helicopter had a wealth of experience including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and took part in humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The crash was investigated by the Louisiana guard and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts and a retired United Airlines pilot, said pilots operating in thick fog or other situations where it's impossible to see the horizon must rely on their instruments to fly because the conditions can be so disorienting.
"In fog you have two problems: You don't see the horizon, and depending on how thick the fog is you don't see the distance," he said. "You don't have those visual clues. The human brain is programmed to follow visual clues."
But, he said helicopter pilots, who generally fly much closer to the ground, often don't do as much instrument flying as airplane pilots, who frequently fly above or in cloud cover and bad weather where they have much less visibility.
Piloting the helicopter were Chief Warrant Officer George Wayne Griffin Jr., 37, of Hammond, and Chief Warrant Officer George David Strother, 44, of Alexandria. Both were decorated veteran pilots. Griffin had twice served in Iraq; Strother had served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Staff Sgts. Lance Bergeron, 40, of Hammond, and Thomas Florich, 26, of Fairfax County, Virginia, rounded out the Guard crew.
The report was another grim reminder of the tragedy for Florich's father, Stephen Florich. A former Army major and Green Beret who has been involved in training at the Army's Fort Polk in Louisiana, he had no criticism for anyone involved.
"It's tragic that 11 servicemen gave up their lives," he said in a brief interview. "They train to keep this nation safe."
Messages left for other family members were not immediately returned.
The seven Marines were part of the Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, which totals about 2,500 troops:
They included Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, 26, of Holland, Michigan; Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, 27, of Warren, Michigan; Staff Sgt. Kerry Michael Kemp, 27, of Port Washington, Wisconsin; Capt. Stanford H. Shaw, III, 31, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, from Williamsburg, Virginia; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, from Lake Orion, Michigan and Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33, from Queens, New York.
Associated Press reporters Rebecca Santana and Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this story.