The four air crew killed in the Cley helicopter crash were “great airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of others”, RAF Lakenheath’s commanding officer said.

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Colonel Kyle Robinson, 48th Fighter Wing commander, paid tribute to Captains Christopher S Stover, 28, and Sean M Ruane, 31, Technical Support Sergeant Dale E Mathews, 37, and Staff Sergeant Afton M Ponce, 28.

He told a press conference at RAF Lakenheath that it was too early to speculate on the cause of Tuesday’s crash and that no warning messages were received from the helicopter prior to the crash.

Colonel Robinson praised the work of police and emergency services, and gave public thanks for the support the base has received in the wake of the tragedy.

He also confirmed that the bodies of the four victims are due to be removed from the crash site today.

Speaking to the families of the airmen, Colonel Robinson said: “As a husband and father myself I cannot imagine how heartbroken you must feel, now missing a piece of your family. On behalf of the whole wing, I would like to say that we are thinking of you, we are praying for you and we’re here for you.”

He praised the work of the air crew, whose job was “to go anywhere and do anything to save lives.”

“There will be someone having breakfast with their families this morning, with their loved ones, and the members of this crew will have helped make that happen by doing their job and saving their lives,” he added.

Scene investigations have been hampered while ammunition from the Pave Hawk HH-60G is recovered, and Colonel Robinson confirmed that the aircraft was carrying 600 rounds of .50 calibre bullets, and a 9mm side-arm with 15 bullets.

Colonel Robinson said no information had been received by the base about warnings from local people, who reported hearing strange noises from the aircraft.

“I am not aware of any warnings. We take great care to make sure we work in the safest fashion.”

On the helicopter’s strange noises, he added: “We have not received any information like that but the investigation is in early days.”

An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter carries a four-person aircrew – a pilot, co-pilot, and two special mission aviators who are qualified as both gunners and flight engineers. On Tuesday’s mission, Captains Stover and Ruane were the pilots, and Tech Sgt Mathews and Staff Sgt Ponce were the special mission aviators.

Since their deaths, friends and colleagues on the base have been supporting their families, said Colonel Robinson.

“The squadron has rallied around them and been at their side. People have been delivering meals to the families and taking care of loved ones in the US,” he said.

Helicopters are not currently flying from RAF Lakenheath, but F15s are expected to fly this afternoon.

The helicopter was performing a low-level training mission along the coast when the crash took place.

Work began on Thursday morning to remove the bodies of four US Air Force military crew members.

Police continue to lead on the investigation on behalf of Her Majesty’s Coroner Jacqueline Lake with assistance from other agencies including the Ministry of Defence and USAF.

The USAF has been given authority to begin the recovery operation to take place. It comes after investigators visited the site yesterday following the crash which happened on Tuesday night (7 January) shortly before 7pm.

The scene remains cordoned off and closures are in place on the A149 between Salthouse and Old Woman’s Lane.

Chief Superintendent Bob Scully said: “Police and other agencies remain on scene today as the investigation continues and will ensure the recovery of the bodies is dignified and respectful.

“Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of the military personnel who lost their lives in this tragic incident.

“The scene is on difficult ground and the longer term investigation and recovery work will take many more weeks.”

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