FOUR people were feared dead last night after a US military helicopter crashed on the Norfolk coast while on a training exercise.
The incident happened in Cley next the Sea, in the north of the county. The aircraft was stationed at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, which hosts the US air force’s 48th Fighter Wing.
A spokesman for the base said: “A US air force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed at about 6pm near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.
“The aircraft was on a low-level training mission when the crash occurred. “The conditions of the four crew members remain unknown at this time.”
Following the crash, a 1,200ft area, understood to be marshland in a bird reserve, was cordoned off by the emergency services.
Police said residents close to the scene could stay in their homes, but pedestrians and motorists were diverted away as there was live ammunition on board the aircraft.
Around a dozen emergency vehicles from the fire brigade, coastguard and police attended the scene throughout the night.
A resident who did not want to be named said: “We heard the helicopter fly over. There wasn’t any bang, but soon after we heard some jets fly over very low. It was obvious it was part of a search operation and it shook our house.”
Cley artist Rachel Lockwood described the scene: “We had never seen so many police cars and fire engines, so went to have a look.
“The beach road to Cley is sealed off. There are lots of fire engines near the Dun Cow pub at Salthouse. A helicopter is hovering over the marsh with a light beaming down.”
Pave Hawks, a modified version of the better-known Black Hawks, are used for combat search and rescue operations, mainly to recover downed aircrew or other isolated personnel in theatres of war.
On its website, the air base said the helicopter’s “primary mission” was to: “… conduct day or night operations into hostile environments to recover downed aircrew or other isolated personnel during war”.
The helicopters have been deployed in numerous overseas missions, including to Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and to support operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The 48th Fighter Wing, also known as the Liberty Wing, is assigned to the US Air Forces in Europe command.
Local reports said that residents had heard American F-15 planes, which are also based at RAF Lakenheath – about 50 miles from Cley – flying over the scene of the crash.
Cley next Sea is a picturesque village, known for its historic windmill and church. Its nature reserve is famed as a birdwatching site.
The area is popular with walkers and tourists, who enjoy the views and wildlife.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust said on its website that staff were “shocked” to hear of the crash.
A statement from the trust said the crash had happened “on the shingle bank at NWT Cley Marshes nature reserve” and added: “Our immediate thoughts are for the families of those who sadly lost their lives.”