Four crew members have been killed after a US Air Force (USAF) helicopter on a training mission crashed near the north Norfolk coast.
The HH-60 Pave Hawk, a derivative of the Sikorsky Black Hawk aircraft, plunged into marshland at Cley-next-the-Sea at about 6pm Tuesday.
The USAF said the helicopter went down between a beach car park at Cley and Eastbank, near Salthouse - an area which remains flooded following the recent tidal surge.
It was initially thought to have plunged into the North Sea, prompting the RNLI to dispatch three lifeboats, but these were later recalled.
The Pave Hawk was stationed at the USAF base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, about 50 miles from the crash site. The 48th Air Wing of the USAF, based at Lakenheath, said in a Twitter post: “We can confirm that one of our HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters was involved in an incident during a training mission outside Cley-next-the-Sea.”
Police said they arrived on the scene, an area of shingle at Cley marshes, at about 8pm after being called by the fire service.
A spokesman for Norfolk Constabulary said: “Officers are currently at the scene of a helicopter crash which is thought to have taken place at around 7pm in the A149 Salthouse area on the north Norfolk coast.
"The helicopter has been confirmed as a USAF Pave Hawk HH60 helicopter from RAF Lakenheath and four occupants are thought to have died in the crash. Next of kin will be informed before further details on the victims are released.
“It is not believed that anyone in the surrounding area has been injured. However, there remains a 400m cordon around the site, which is standard for this type of incident, whether civil or military. An assessment is still being carried out around the munitions which may be on the aircraft and advice from the military is being taken.
"All emergency services are at the scene while investigations continue. To ensure their safety, members of the public are asked to respect the cordons that are in place as enquiries are ongoing."
A statement from the US Air Force said: "US Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed at about 6pm today near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.
“The aircraft, assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing, was on a low-level training mission when the crash occurred. The conditions of the four crew members are unknown at this time.”
Nearby residents told the Eastern Daily Press newspaper that they heard US F-15 fighter aircraft searching overhead. More helicopters were also circling the area.
Rachel Lockwood, an artist from the Pinkfoot Gallery in Cley, said: “We had never seen so many police cars and fire engines so went to have a look. Someone said it was a helicopter down, and a coastguard told us to clear the area, saying something about ammunition. If it is down on the marsh it might be difficult to find because of the flooding after the sea surge.”
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said the crash was “utterly tragic”, adding: “My heart goes out to the families of the crew, and it is all the more difficult because I suspect the families are from a long way away and the news is just filtering through. It is highly traumatic too for the local communities but it was quite close to the villages and could have been even more horrific if it came down on buildings.”
Richard Kelham, the chairman of Cley Parish Council, told ITV News that the helicopter was thought to have landed in a bird reserve. North Norfolk is famous as a birdwatching area and is popular with walkers and tourists.
A spokesman for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution said: “We were asked for three lifeboats to respond to reports that an aircraft had possibly ditched in the sea.
"Lifeboats Wells, Sheringham and Cromer were launched at the request of the coastguard but were stood down when it was confirmed that the aircraft had come down over land."
The Ministry of Defence said the RAF was assisting police with the search operation.
It is unknown how many people were on board the helicopter at the time of the incident, but Pave Hawks are able to carry a crew of up to six, with eight to 12 troops plus cargo.
Their wartime role is to conduct rescue operations in hostile environments and recover isolated soldiers. They can also be used for civilian search-and-rescue missions, medical evacuations, disaster responses and humanitarian assistance. The $40.1m Pave Hawk is 64ft long and can travel at speeds of up to 184mph (159 knots).
The US military deployed some of its Pave Hawk fleet to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 and following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011.
Today, Pave Hawks continue to support American military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The crash comes weeks after a police helicopter crashed into the Clutha Pub in Glasgow on 30 November, killing 10 people.