By KIM CHANDLER, LOLITA C. BALDOR and KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Two Tennessee National Guard pilots killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed along an Alabama highway were both experienced aviators with more than a dozen years of military service apiece, military officials said Thursday.
The National Guard identified the pilots as Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daniel Wadham of Joelton, Tennessee, and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Danny Randolph of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The soldiers were assigned to A Company, 1-230th Assault Helicopter Battalion, from Nashville’s Berry Field Air National Guard Base. Wadham had 15 years of military service, and Randolph had 13 years of military service, officials said.
The helicopter crashed during a training exercise Wednesday, plummeting into a highway in a community just outside Huntsville, Alabama and catching fire as it hit the ground. The Tennessee National Guard said in a statement that the helicopter was approaching the Huntsville Executive Airport, “when the aircraft rapidly descended and impacted the ground.”
“Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of these two Tennessee National Guardsmen,” Brig. Gen. Warner Ross, Tennessee’s adjutant general, said in a statement. “It is felt not only within the ranks of the Tennessee National Guard, but across our entire military community. We ask that Tennesseans continue to join us in prayer for these soldiers’ families amid this tragic loss.”
The UH-60 helicopter, more widely known as a Black Hawk, crashed along Alabama Highway 53 in the unincorporated community of Harvest, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said. The Madison County sheriff’s office said there were no injuries to anyone on the ground when the helicopter crashed.
Officials have not yet released information about a possible cause of the crash. A safety investigation team from the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, headquartered at Fort Rucker, Alabama, will lead the investigation into the accident, Jimmie E. Cummings, Jr., a spokesman for the the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center wrote in an email. The center normally assumes responsibility of lead investigating agency when accident findings may have an Army-wide impact, Cummings said.
Tammy Adams told WAAY that she was driving along Alabama 53 in Harvest when she saw the helicopter fall and explode on impact.
“We heard a very loud — like a car without a muffler, but we knew it was in the sky. Looking up in the air, we saw the helicopter, and BAM! We hear it hit. We saw it hit the ground, and it exploded,” Adams recalled.
I just hollered, ‘My Lord! My God!’ Because nobody could have survived that,” she said.
Micheal Mclein told WAFF that he was on his way to pick up his daughter from school when he heard the crash.
“As soon as it hits, you heard it, you seen the smoke,” Mclein told the station.
Local news outlets showed large plumes of black smoke rising from the crash site.
“It’s a travesty because you know these guys go out here to put their lives on the line and fight for us and then you got this where they’re just flying and die like that? It’s not the way it should’ve went.”
The sheriff’s office cautioned residents that debris could be scattered across areas near the crash site, and asked residents to call authorities if they find any wreckage.
Harvest is just northwest of Huntsville, which is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal. The once rural area has become increasingly suburban and is about 90 miles south of Nashville.
A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration referred questions to the military.
Over the years, a handful of Black Hawk helicopters were in crashes during training exercises.
In 2022 in Utah, whiteout conditions caused a Black Hawk helicopter pilot during a training exercise to lose sight of where he was trying to land, causing a crash with another helicopter near a Utah ski resort. None of men and women aboard the helicopter or the dozens of skiers nearby at the resort were injured.
In 2021, three Idaho Army National Guard pilots died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Boise during a training flight.
And in 2020, two soldiers were killed and three were injured when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a training exercise off Southern California’s coast.