More than 24 hours after a Marine helicopter disappeared in flight over Nepal, a search and rescue effort has found no sign of the missing aircraft and its crew of six U.S. Marines and two Nepalese soldiers, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
"The search continues," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday morning.
The latest official update dashed hopes raised by an earlier report Wednesday morning from the Deutsche Presse Agentur news agency, which suggested that officials had determined the helicopter's location.
"There are a lot of reports floating around, none are attributed to anyone and most have been investigated by DoD and determined to be fake," Army Maj. David Eastburn, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, said in an email to Military Times on Wednesday.
The search for the missing helicopter continued on Wednesday morning with two UH-1Y Huey helicopters leaving Kathmandu with two Air Force pararescuemen and several Marines onboard. One of the Hueys was fitted with a hoist in case the helicopter cannot find a landing site.
"Once the pair of Hueys completed their initial search, they returned to Kathmandu where two MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft took off and continued the efforts," Eastburn said. "This pattern will continue all day."
The U.S. aircraft halted the aerial search again after sundown in Nepal Wednesday. In total, the aircraft flew nine sorties over the location where the missing helicopter was last seen, Warren said.
A U.S. military helicopter missing during an aid mission in Nepal reportedly has been spotted, according to the Deutsche Press Agentur news agency. But it will take time to reach the site where it has been located in the Tamakoshi region north of the capital of Kathmandu.
The Huey helicopter was carrying six U.S. Marines and two Nepalese soldiers when it disappeared Tuesday during a mission in a remote mountainous region in Nepal, a defense official said.
The utility helicopter from Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadron 469 based at Camp Pendleton, California, was last seen after another helicopter in the area "picked up some [radio] chatter about a fuel problem," Warren said Tuesday shortly after the aircraft was reported missing.
"Right now we are hopeful that there was no crash. There has been no [emergency] beacon, no other signs — no flames, no smoke, no hole in the ground — to indicate that there was a crash," Warren said Tuesday.
"That said, of course, it's very rugged and difficult terrain," an official said.
Last known location
There are currently about 300 U.S. military personnel in Nepal providing humanitarian support and disaster relief supplies following the massive earthquake that hit the mountainous country more than two weeks ago.
The helicopter was flying in the vicinity of Charikot, Nepal. The six Marines, along with two Nepalese army soldiers on board, had dropped off some relief supplies, including tarps and rice, at one location and then took off en route to a second drop spot when contact was lost, Warren said.
The Nepalese Air Brigade reported the helicopter's last known airborne location and three MV-22B Ospreys searched that area for 90 minutes, but were unable to find the aircraft. The air Ospreys halted the search was halted after dark and Nepalese soldiers were heading to search the area on foot, Warren said.
Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, the forward commander of Joint Task Force 505, is leading the personnel rescue effort, Warren said.
A U.S. Air Force pararescue team "has rehearsed and is ready to execute if needed," Warren said.
The mountainous terrain makes the search very difficult.
"If it set down, then it can't get radio transmissions out because that means it's on low ground surrounded by mountains. Essentially what we have right now is truly a missing helicopter. We simply don't know its location," Warren said.
The report of radio chatter about a fuel problem came from an Indian helicopter that was flying in the area at the time, Warren said.
"Right now we are hopeful. We have reason to believe this is simply the case of a helicopter that has landed and is out of communication."
Meanwhile, the Air Force's 36th Contingency Response Group is continuing to help offload humanitarian aid at Tribhuvan International Airport, an official said.
— Staff writer Jeffrey Schogol contributed to this report.