The U.S. Coast Guard began a hearing Wednesday to determine if the sole survivor of a fatal helicopter crash last summer should be held accountable and court-martialed for his role in the incident that killed three of his colleagues.
Lt. Lance Leone, 31, who was the designated copilot of the MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter, was charged Sept. 30 of this year with negligent homicide in connection to the deaths of two of the three other Coast Guard members of the aircraft. The helicopter crashed near LaPush, Wash., in July 2010 after it collided with power cables that spanned 1,900 feet from LaPush to James Island.
Leone also is charged with dereliction of duty and destruction of the helicopter, worth about $18.3 million, for failing to properly navigate the helicopter to avoid charted hazards and for failure to ensure it was flying at a higher altitude.
Leone, who has previously been awarded for his copiloting abilities, was onboard with Brett Banks, 33, of Rock Springs Wyo., Adam C. Hoke, 40, of Great Falls, Mont., and the pilot-in-command of the mission, Sean Krueger, 33, of Seymour, Conn. They had travelled south to Astoria, Ore., and were returning to their home base in Sitka when the crash occurred. It was a “ferry flight” mission, meaning the purpose was to relocate the aircraft to Sitka.
There was also a training aspect involved with the flight: Krueger and Leone had been purposefully paired together by senior officers since Krueger had more than 1 1/2 years of experience of flying in Alaska and was Alaska-area qualified. Alaska is the only state that requires specific Coast Guard qualification, given the rough weather and terrain. However, Krueger had just a few flight hours docked on the newer version, the ‘T’-version of the Jayhawk. Leone, on the other hand, had more than 270 hours flying the new Jayhawk, but had just been stationed at Sitka for nine days prior to the crash. Leone was, as his attorney stated, one of “the new guys” to Alaska, though he has been in the Coast Guard for nearly 10 years.
The government’s prosecutors, Cmdr. Matthew Fey and Lt. Stan Fields, argued the helicopter was flying too low and too fast, which were contributing factors in the crash, they said. They claimed 62 percent of the flight was conducted 200 feet above ground level. One witness they called testified the helicopter was probably flying 125 to 150 knots about 150 feet from the shore. Leone’s lead lawyer, civilian attorney John M. Smith from Arlington, Va., pointed out that witness had also sent conflicting correspondence estimating the crash was 200 to 300 feet at excess of 100 knots while also admitting she wasn’t good at guessing the speeds of large aircraft. Smith also pointed out at one time during the flight, they were at 1,000 feet.
At the time of the crash, it is believed the aircraft was travelling “approximately 240 feet, down to under 200, and to about 115 feet”, said Timothy Heitsch, who was appointed to conduct an investigation into the matter for the Coast Guard. Heitsch testified his investigation found Krueger and Leone were “sightseeing along the coast during the flight.” Heitsch said his investigation, which wrapped up in November 2010, found that Leone wasn’t “actively navigating” and “did not warn the pilot of the wires.”
“I believe there was negligence on behalf on Lt. Leone that resulted in the deaths of three other people,” Heitsch was asked to read from his report.
It was not revealed in court who was in control of the helicopter during the time of the crash. The hearing’s lead investigative officer Coast Guard judge advocate Capt. Andrew Norris and the legal teams listened to a recording of the cockpit conversations that occurred during the time of the crash behind closed doors, due to the sensitive nature of the recording.
Smith established during the hearing the new version of the Jayhawk does have the capability to allow the pilot and copilot to switch who has control of the aircraft in flight. Norris also emphasized that the T-version has a system, or “coupler” that allows the helicopter to basically run on autopilot, whereas the older H-model does not. Leone had the controls “40 seconds before the aircraft hit the wires,” Norris said.
Smith also demonstrated repeated instances where Leone checked potential safety hazards both before and during the flight, including when he warns Krueger of another aircraft and a bird in the air.
Smith said there had been two previous crashes in those same wires. Leone’s supporters call the crash an accident caused by improperly marked lines.
In the seats behind him, Leone had the support of his friends, family and the relatives of the victims of the crash. Kyla Krueger, the wife of the pilot in charge of the mission, says she flew to Juneau from the East Coast in part to make her support of Leone known.
“I came today first and foremost for myself so that I could hear information first-hand and so that I can be here to attempt to being closure to the situation for myself, but maybe more importantly to support Lance and to support the Leone family,” she said.
Leone and Kyla have remained friends ever since he took Sean’s sister to the Coast Guard Academy Graduation Ball in 2000, Kyla said. She and Sean had been married for nine years.
One man, Mike Finn of Sitka, who started a Leone support team on Facebook, said he went to see the wires himself during his own personal investigation of the matter. To him, it’s clearly a mishap, he said.
“The tower that’s marked on there is listed at the wrong height altitude and the wrong minimum altitude and it’s marked approximately about a mile from where it should be,” he said. “The actual wire span that is listed on the map from James Island to shore is about the width of two pencil widths, you can’t see it.”
He said the two other crashes in the wires happened in 1955 and 1963, and once, the government was sued to fix the wires.
Leone’s father, George, and stepmother, Renee, said they were stunned to hear charges had been filed against their son, especially after he had already been cleared by two investigation boards and was given the green light to fly again, they said.
“Totally unbelievable,” George said. “No logic in it. None. No new facts found.”
The Article 32 hearing, which is similar to grand jury proceedings, will likely continue until Friday. Norris then has seven days to make a recommendation to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard’s District 17, on what should occur next.
Leone could either face a court-martial, administrative action, or the case could be dismissed.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.