USMC IDs 4 crew members killed in helicopter crash

The crash happened after the helicopter departed Twentynine Palms to practice aircraft landings in unimproved zones

Carl Prine
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Helicopter crew members who died together in a Tuesday crash in Imperial County mirrored both the Marine Corps and the country that they served.

Following notifications to their relatives on Thursday, the Pentagon released the names of the four Marines killed while crewing the CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter that went down around 2:35 p.m. Tuesday about 15 miles west of El Centro, near the desert community of Plaster City and the international border with Mexico.

Piloting the aircraft was Capt. Samuel Abraham Schultz, 28, of “Warhorse,” the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465 based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

The Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, native joined the Corps in mid-2012 and previously served at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, plus an overseas deployment with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

First Lt. Samuel D. Phillips, 27, of Pinehurst, North Carolina, co-piloted the helicopter. After joining the Corps in 2013, he also served in Pensacola, Corpus Christi and New River but had yet to deploy overseas.

Like Phillips, Lance Cpl. Taylor J. Conrad, 24, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had yet to deploy overseas. He enlisted in the Corps in mid-2016.

His chief, Gunnery Sgt. Richard Holley, 33, of Dayton, Ohio, however, was a highly-decorated Marine.

With nearly 15 years in the Corps, he had served at Miramar and Marine Corps Base Quantico, plus deployments with the Camp Pendleton-based 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to Japan under the Unit Deployment Program and two combat tours to Iraq.

His awards included the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, four Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, nine Air Medals, including Strike/Flight designations for sustained operations, plus four Navy and Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals.

"The loss of our Marines weighs heavy on our hearts," said Maj. Gen. Mark “Notso” Wise, the commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar, in a statement sent by email. "Our priority is to provide support for our families and HMH-465 during this critical time."

"The hardest part of being a Marine is the tragic loss of life of a fellow brother-in-arms," added Col. Craig Leflore, commanding officer of Miramar-based Marine Aircraft Group 16.

“These ‘Warhorse’ Marines brought joy and laughter to so many around them. They each served honorably, wore the uniform proudly and were a perfect example of what makes our Marine Corps great — its people! They will forever be in our hearts and minds,” Leflore said.

Navy and Marine Corps officials continued to probe the lethal crash. They’ve only said that it happened after the helicopter departed the Strategic Expeditionary Landing Field at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County to practice aircraft landings in unimproved zones.

Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465 routinely trains away from Miramar at locations such as Naval Air Facility El Centro, which doubles as the winter home of the the Navy’s aerial acrobatic team, the Blue Angels.

In February, “Warhorse” crews helped reconnaissance Marines practice airborne operations over Camp Pendleton.

Tuesday’s crash occurred in the midst of a rash of accidents involving military aircraft.

On the same day, a Marine AV-8B II jet wrecked in the East African nation of Djibouti. The pilot was listed in stable condition after being treated for injuries incurred after ejecting from the plane.

On Wednesday, a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot from Valencia in Santa Clarita County died during a training flight inside the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

Maj. Stephen Del Bagno, 34, was flying “Thunderbird 4” — as his F-16 Fighting Falcon is called — in his rookie season with the famed aerial acrobatic unit.

Air Force officials described his flight as a routine demonstration training mission.

March was a deadly month for military aviation, too, with 11 crew members killed during separate crashes involving an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in Western Iraq and a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter off the Florida coast near Key West.

Those tragedies never blur together for mourning families.

Reached by phone at her Pennsylvania home, Julie Rosoff Schultz remembered her Marine son Sam as a kind young man who was born to fly.

“Flying was in his blood,” she said, pointing to his father, Mitchell, also a career pilot. “He became a private pilot when he was 18 years old, before he ever joined the military.

“He loved adventure. He sailed. He fished. He was a motorcycle rider. He jumped out of an airplane once. He enjoyed life and people loved to be around him.”

She saw him last during the New Year’s holiday, when he traveled home on leave to march alongside older brother Eric in Philadelphia’s famous Mummers Parade.

Although he dreamed of graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he went to his second choice, Penn State University, and earned a commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, always intending to fly.

He’d spent three years volunteering for THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, to raise money to fight pediatric cancer. He also helped to run the Penn State Aviation Club.

“When he had a mission — whatever it was — he was determined. Driven,” recalled his mom. “Remember him for that.”

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