The U.S. Navy called off its search Wednesday for three sailors whose helicopter crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Colombia during anti-drug operations the day before.
The SH-60B Seahawk helicopter went down early Tuesday while flying within sight of the frigate USS DeWert, which was its floating base, said Bill Austin, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Station at Mayport, Fla., the crew’s home port.
The search ended Tuesday night, and the crew members’ names were not released, the Navy said in a statement. The crew members were assigned to the Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 48, the U.S. Navy said in a statement.
The frigate is part of a unit that usually carries out anti-drug missions in international waters, and the Navy said the helicopter crew was “conducting counter-narco-terrorism operations” when the aircraft crashed.
Austin said he did not know how far the helicopter was from the ship when it went down, or whether it had just taken off or was returning.
“The helicopter didn’t transmit any kind of distress call that we know of,” he said.
A Colombian Navy plane participated in the search, said Adm. Jairo Pena, commander of Colombia’s Pacific fleet.
“We received the report that it fell to the water inexplicably,” Pena said, adding that the accident occurred about 5 a.m. Tuesday in an area about 350 nautical miles off the Colombian port of Buenaventura.
Frequent presence in region
Navy aircraft often fly counter-drug missions in the area. Colombia is the world’s largest cocaine producer and a major supplier of heroin to the United States.
The SH-60B Seahawk is manufactured by U.S.-based Sikorsky Aircraft and has a maximum cruising speed of 155 mph. The Navy says the model can carry a crew of five and often is used for missions departing from the decks of destroyers and frigates to search for boats or submarines.
The United States has been helping the Colombian police and military battle the country’s drug gangs and have made several major arrests in recent years.
Colombia’s Pacific coast is a popular haven for drug smugglers, with lands penetrated by few roads and bisected by inland waterways.
$4 billion for ‘Plan Colombia’
Drug traffickers in this area typically pack several tons of cocaine onto speedboats, sometimes equipped with global positioning systems and satellite telephones, and then dart toward Mexico and Central America, where the drugs are taken across land into the United States.
Since 2000, the United States has spent $4 billion for “Plan Colombia,” a joint U.S.-Colombia anti-drug program. The United States has provided the Colombian government with military training, equipment and other aid under the project.
U.S.-made helicopter crashes in Colombia generally have involved U.S.-donated helicopters flown by Colombian troops on military missions. Since 1999, six U.S.-made Black Hawks have crashed in Colombia, killing at least 67 Colombian soldiers and injuring 37.