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LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — National Guard officials say quick reaction and training helped prevent anyone from being injured after two Black Hawk helicopters were involved in an accident while training in the Mineral Basin area near Snowbird on Tuesday.
"We can confirm that two Utah National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were involved in a training accident at approx. 9:30 a.m. near Mineral Basin. No crew members were injured in the accident. Both UH-60s were damaged. The incident is under investigation," the Utah National Guard tweeted.
Utah National Guard aviation spokesman, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jared Jones, who is a senior instructor pilot, said the two helicopters were doing routine survivability and mobility mountain training and attempting to land in an area that is approved for such exercises and where the National Guard has landed helicopters before.
"As they landed, the snow kicked up and the aircraft probably lost sight of the ground. We know there were portions of the rotor blade that separated from the helicopter and struck the second helicopter," he said.
The second helicopter, after being hit by pieces of the first helicopter, was able to make a quick landing at that point.
"It was a blessing that everyone was OK," Jones said, noting that both helicopter crews were able to walk away from the scene.
"We are grateful that no one was seriously injured thanks to the quick reaction and training of both command pilots," Maj. Matthew Green, commander of the 2nd Aviation Regiment, added in a prepared statement. "Right now, our top priority is taking care of both crews."
Why the rotors broke off from the first helicopter will be part of the investigation into the incident, said Jones, who noted he wasn't there but had seen video recorded by others.
"My understanding is that as the first aircraft landed, you do see a lot of snow kick up — a lot of snow. And then thereafter, portions of the blade of the lead helicopter separated, and it appears struck the second helicopter that was about to land," he said. "You can see portions of the blade coming away from the lead helicopter and one of those pieces appears to have struck the second helicopter, which caused it to land shortly thereafter."
The helicopters landed in National Forest Service land, about 150 yards away from Snowbird's boundaries. Although many skiers saw the helicopters, Jones said the landing zone was in an area that was considered a safe distance from potentially injuring anyone.
Several skiers at Snowbird on Tuesday, however, said they clearly heard and saw the crash. And some felt it potentially could have hurt someone on the ground.
"Rotors flying toward people and all over. It was really scary," said Noah Sikorski. "It was definitely nerve-wracking to see."
"It was scary because the one helicopter that (was) closest to the Mineral Basin lift ended up being feet away from where those people were standing," added Robbie Shine, from Colorado Springs. "You could hear metal crashing. Big cloud of all the new snow came flying up."
There were three to four people onboard each helicopter, and each helicopter was piloted by a senior, well-trained crew, he said.
"It could have been a lot worse. The crew did some quick, deliberate thinking to get everyone down safely," Jones said.
No fuel leaked from either of the helicopters after hitting the ground. But witnesses said one helicopter had no rotors left on top.
"If you go up there, it's just a bare body of a helicopter now," Sikorski said.
The Utah National Guard also announced Tuesday that all training flights have been canceled until further notice while safety protocols and regulations are reviewed.
Contributing: Ladd Egan