Maintenance test flights routine for military choppers

People in uniform stand in front of members of the media.
A press conference was held in the town of Marty, Minn., on Thursday to confirm the deaths of three soldiers who were performing a "maintenance test flight" in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that took off from St. Cloud, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Ten years ago, when the Minnesota National Guard opened a Black Hawk helicopter base next to the St. Cloud Regional Airport, it was a big deal for the community.

St. Cloud won out over other cities, including Rochester, Minn., to get the Army Aviation Support Facility, which meant jobs and regular helicopter flights.

Dave Kleis pushed to get the base while serving in the state Legislature. Later, as St. Cloud's mayor, he welcomed its opening.

"It was something that the community wanted, and we were able to secure it and watch that from the groundbreaking to the point where a lot of folks train out of that facility,” Kleis said.

That made Thursday's news even more heartbreaking, Kleis said. The base was the starting point for the ill-fated Black Hawk helicopter flight that ended in a snowy field about 16 miles southwest of St. Cloud in central Minnesota.

All three crew members aboard were killed. Their names are expected to be released Saturday afternoon.

It was a tragic turn of events for what was supposed to be a routine flight. The Minnesota National Guard hasn't provided details on what the Black Hawk was doing, or what may have caused it to go down.

The Black Hawk is the Army's standard utility helicopter. It's used to transport troops and equipment, for air assaults and as a medivac for the wounded.

State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, flies Black Hawk helicopters as a major in the Minnesota National Guard. He also pilots medical flights for North Memorial Health.

Lang said like any helicopter, the Black Hawk is maintenance intensive, and often requires five or six hours of what he calls "wrench time" for every hour of flight.

"Every time that it's worked on or fixed, there's a maintenance test pilot that needs to go out and do those checks and make sure that everything is good before it's handed on down the line and any other pilot can fly it,” Lang said.

Lang said maintenance test pilots are often more experienced and know the aircraft inside and out. He said he personally knew the three crew members who were killed.

"It's a small group of tight-knit guys and gals,” Lang said. “It's definitely family, so it hits close to home."

State Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, served 35 years in the Minnesota National Guard and three years in the U.S. Navy. He wasn't a pilot, but worked on aircraft equipment and as a transportation officer.

Howe said such test runs are standard practice in the military, for all types of equipment.

"It's just like if you did maintenance on a truck,” Howe said. “You'd drive it around the parking lot a little bit, you'd do this, that and the other thing, before you took off down the road … So generally speaking, it's pretty routine thing."

Howe said military helicopter crashes like Thursday’s are rare. The last one he recalls in Minnesota happened in 1993, when two Huey helicopters collided during a training flight near Camp Ripley. Five crew members were killed.

Thursday’s crash in Stearns County happened in a rural area with no houses close by.

Kleis said he doesn't have safety concerns about the helicopter base being near St. Cloud. He said the National Guard has been a good neighbor, and often conducts its flights over unpopulated areas.

"It's been a great partner in a lot of ways,” Kleis said. “It's just so sad, what happened. They're a part of our community."

The National Guard may provide more information about the flight on Saturday, when it's expected to release the names of the three crew members who died. Gov. Tim Walz has ordered flags to fly at half staff until Monday in their memory.

Investigators from Fort Rucker, Ala., are expected to arrive Saturday in Stearns County. They will spend several days investigating the crash scene.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.