MIGHTY TRENDING

Marines honored for cool heads during aerial fire

The crew of a U.S. Marine Corps Super Stallion that sustained an engine fire during aerial refueling have been awarded the Air Medal for quick actions that saved the lives of everyone on the aircraft and the ground.

The Marine Corps presented the Air Medal to three U.S. Marines on July 24, 2018, at Marine Air Station Miramar, California, for their actions while crewing a CH-53E Super Stallion that caught fire off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, during aerial refueling operations.


Capt. Molly A. O'Malley stands during an award ceremony where she and two other Marines received the Air Medal.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dominic Romero)

The awards were presented to Capt. Ryan J. Boyer, Capt. Molly A. O'Malley, and Sgt. Garrett D. Mills of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 462, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 16. The Marines were serving in Japan last year and were conducting operations near Okinawa's Northern Training Area, an area often used for jungle training.

The in-flight fire was severe, with locals reportedly hearing a series of small explosions soon after the crew managed an emergency landing in a privately-owned field near the coast. The pilots acted quickly to get the helicopter back to land and the crew rushed off a number of passengers, allowing everyone to escape without injury before the helicopter burned too badly.

The helicopter itself was almost completely destroyed by the fire. The engine, most of the rotor blades, and the fuselage are visible as just a pile of slag in the Japanese field in images and video released by Japanese media after the crash.

Additional helicopters rushed to the scene to secure the crew and passengers and another CH-53 came on station with a helibucket to drop water and control the flames until Japanese firefighters and American first-responders from the nearby base could respond.

The quick actions of the crew and first responders prevented any property damage to anything except the plants directly under the burning helicopter.

This success by the crew and emergency workers had positive consequences beyond protecting the life and health of the passengers and local population. American military aviation in the area is extremely controversial, and nearly all incidents on the island trigger local protests and condemnation from politicians. Limiting the property damage and protecting all human life reduces the amount of backlash.

Capt. Ryan J. Boyer, Capt. Molly A. O'Malley, and Sgt. Garrett D. Mills pose with their air medals and a CH-53 Super Stallion after their award ceremony.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dominic Romero)

The Marine Corps' fleet of CH-53E Super Stallions are quickly becoming obsolete as their heavy rate of use in ongoing conflicts across the world — as well as normal operations and training — take a toll. The average CH-53E is 15 years old.

The aircraft are being used at three times the originally expected rate and many airframes have logged over 3,000 flight hours. A Jane's Defense analysis of the aircraft estimated that the frames will last an average of 6,120 hours.

The aircraft is being replaced by the CH-53K, a very similar version of the helicopter but with a significantly more capability.

See more photos from the award ceremony below:

A U.S. Marine receives the Air Medal from Maj. Gen. Kevin M. IIams during a July 24 ceremony honoring three Marines' quick actions during an Oct. 11, 2017 in-flight fire.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dominic Romero)

Capt. Ryan J. Boyer, Capt. Molly A. O'Malley, and Sgt. Garrett D. Mills stand during an award ceremony as Maj. Gen. Kevin M. IIams gives his remarks.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dominic Romero)

Capt. Ryan J. Boyer, Capt. Molly A. O'Malley, and Sgt. Garrett D. Mills stand in front of Maj. Gen. Kevin M. IIams during a July 24 award ceremony honoring their actions during an Oct. 11, 2017 fire in their CH-53E Super Stallion.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Dominic Romero)