- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2012

SAN DIEGO Two Marine Corps helicopters collided over a remote section of the California desert during a nighttime exercise, killing seven Marines in one of the Corps’ deadliest training accidents in years.

There were no survivors in the latest in a series of crashes involving troops from Camp Pendleton, officials said Thursday.

Two Marines were aboard an AH-1W Cobra and the rest were in a UH-1 Huey utility helicopter when the crash occurred Wednesday night near the Chocolate Mountains along the California-Arizona border, said Lt. Maureen Dooley with Miramar Air Base in San Diego.

Six of the victims were from Camp Pendleton - the largest base on the West Coast - and one was from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. Their identities will not be released until their families have been notified.

Officials still were scrambling after sunrise to gather evidence at the crash site in a remote section of the Yuma Training Range Complex.

The sprawling 1.2 million-acre range in Arizona and southeastern California is favored by the U.S. military and its allies for training because the hot, dusty conditions and craggy mountains replicate Afghanistan’s harsh environment, and the clear weather allows for constant flying.

It was the fifth time since March that Marine Corps aircraft have crashed during a training exercise in California. In the past five years, there have been only two other aviation training accidents in the Navy and Marine Corps involving seven or more deaths, according to the Navy.

Retired Marine Col. J.F. Joseph, an aviation safety consultant, said Marine aviators always are at risk as they train to become combat ready.

“It’s an unfortunate consequence of the high tempo of operations,” he said. “They’re out there working on the edge trying to exploit the maximum capabilities of the aircraft and their tactics.”

The Marine Corps and Navy, nonetheless, stand out in their efforts to mitigate that risk and make training as safe as possible, he said.

The weather was mild Wednesday when the helicopters were flying as part of a two-week standard training called “Scorpion Fire” that involved a squadron of about 450 troops from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The helicopters collided at 8:45 p.m. near dunes at the edge of the Yuma range. Ground troops were in the area, but they were not affected, said Gunnery Sgt. Dustin Dunk, a spokesman at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. The station is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the accident site.

In other crashes in the past year, a twin-engine, two-seat AH-1W Cobra helicopter went down in September during training in a remote area of Camp Pendleton, killing two Marine pilots and igniting a brush fire that burned about 120 acres at the base north of San Diego.

In July, a decorated Marine from western New York was killed during a training exercise when his UH-1Y helicopter went down in a remote section of Camp Pendleton.

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