Two Navy Planes Collide Over Pacific; 27 Missing
March 21st, 1991
SAN DIEGO – Two Navy submarine-hunting planes collided Thursday, and all 27 people aboard were feared dead in cold, choppy waters 60 miles off Sourthern California, authorities said.
The Navy listed the crews as missing, but there was little hope any of the crew members from the downed P-3 Orions survived.
The all-weather planes were engaged in an anti-submarine Warfare exercise when they collided in bad weather, authorities said.
“I think we have to be realistic here,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Bob Howard, a Navy public affairs officer at North Island Naval Air Station. “It is very cold out there. We’re talking about what apparently is a mid-air collision…two aircraft. I would say it would be very grim.”
Still, he said, the Navy was conducting an aggressive air and sea search of the crash site.
Search and rescue teams saw some debris from the planes but found no signs of life.
There was no word on how long the search would last, but Howard said the Navy would make “extraordinary” attempts to retrieve remains and wreckage.
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the destroyer USS Merrill and at least two other ships, along with helicopters and fixed-wing planes, were assisting in the search.
A Navy helicopter crew flying in the area and sailors from the Merrill reported a ball of fire and loud explosion about 2:30 a.m. PST, Howard said during a briefing at North Island Naval Air Station.
He said the accident occurred over the Pacific Ocean about 60 miles southwest of San Diego.
The collision occurred as one P-3 Orion was arriving to relieve the other, which had just completed its part of the exercise, Howard said. Officials were uncertain how much contact the pilots had before the crash, he said.
Howard said it was believed 13 crew members were aboard one P-3 Orion and 14 on the other. The planes were on a training mission from Moffett Naval Air Station near San Jose. Names of crew members were withheld pending notification of their families.
The P-3s were in contact with land- and sea-based air controllers during the exercise, but officials were uncertain who was directing them at the time of the collision, Howard said.
Showers and strong winds were reported in the San Diego area overnight. The National Weather Service said pilots in the area reported severe turbulence about the time of the collision.
Howard said the Navy was uncertain what part, if any, weather played in the collision.