The military hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold the copilot and sole survivor of a fatal Coast Guard helicopter crash accountable for the accident ended Friday in a Juneau Federal Building courtroom.
Investigative officer of the Article 32 hearing and acting judge advocate Capt. Andrew Norris now has seven days to recommend whether Lt. Lance Leone will face a court-martial hearing for being negligent in his duties.
Leone, 31, was copiloting a helicopter traveling at low altitude that hit power lines and crashed off the Washington coast in July of 2010. Three Coast Guardsmen died.
Leone faces charges of negligent homicide, 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. Norris added another potential charge Friday of dereliction of duty for failure to employ crew resource management. Government counsel say they did not request that charge. All the charges are violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In closing remarks Friday, Leone’s lawyer argued Leone was not to blame for the crash and there was “no evidence whatsoever” that Leone was negligent in his duties. Smith turned the tables on the Coast Guard and alleged they were the ones who are responsible for not marking the power lines properly.
By mismarking the wires, Smith said, “The U.S. Coast Guard set a trap, a trap that was spring-loaded,” that ensnared the crew — 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.
Prosecutors Friday dismissed the wires as “red herrings” in the case, prompting Smith to reply, “It’s a little arrogant — more than a little arrogant — to come in and say that (the wires) doesn’t play a significant role.”
The crew of the Sitka-based MH-60T Jayhawk was ferrying the chopper from Astoria, Ore., to their home base in Sitka when it collided with power cables near La Push, Wash. The cables span 1,900 feet from La Push to James Island and are owned by the Coast Guard. They are anchored to four towers and power flood lights on James Island at the entrance of a channel.
The wires descend from 190 feet to about 36 feet. At the time of the crash, the marking balls were pooled near a pole above land at the low point, not across the water, the sides agree.
Testimony revealed the helicopter struck the cables at about 114 to 115 feet above ground. Prosecutors Cmdr. Matthew Fey and Lt. Stanley Fields say it’s against federal regulations and Coast Guard procedure to fly that low over a wildlife refuge, and that Leone as copilot should have warned the pilot-in-command about the wires, or challenged Krueger’s decision to drop in altitude moments before the helicopter crashed.
On Friday, Fields emphasized the Coast Guard is not required to mark structures that are below 200 feet in height, such as the wires, according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Smith countered those same regulations have an exception to the 200 feet rule to allow for “extraordinary hazard potential,” like this site where two aircraft, one in the 1950s and the other in the 1960s, had crashed. The July accident marked the third known aircraft crashing into the wires.
The defense called a witness, a supervisor with the Federal Aviation Administration obstruction evaluation group, who testified if someone at the Coast Guard had asked for a recommendation, he would have recommended the marker balls be 36 inches in diameter, placed every 200 feet. The FAA conducts free aeronomical studies for information such as that, he said. The witness said he was not aware of crashes in the wires until he was asked to testify.
Further testimony Friday revealed that, although the Coast Guard replaced the power cables and poles in 2002, no inspection reports since that year made mention of the wires or marker balls despite yearly and biennial inspections. That witness, the facility office manager for Coast Guard District 13 in California, Lt. Thomas Mansell, was asked to review the history of the cables and the 2002 project and if there were specific instructions as to where to marker balls should be placed.
“It was pretty vague,” Mansell said. “There was no guidance.”
Mansell elaborated there were construction drawings of the wires, but those drawings gave no indication of “where or how they should be marked.” Those details are often worked out between project managers and contractors, he said.
Other witnesses called Friday spoke on Leone’s behalf to demonstrate he’s a trustworthy, safe copilot, not known to take risks.
One man, Cmdr. Kevin Lyons, who was stationed with Leone in Elizabeth City, N.C., described one search and rescue mission when Leone was his copilot. Two helicopters were called for a rescue during a storm in the Hampton Roads, Va, area, when Leone noticed the other helicopter was going to land on the wrong ship’s pad. Lyons’ and Leone’s helicopter were able to land on the right ship for the rescue because Leone noticed the type of ship and the ship’s numbers were incorrect.
“He was seeing more than the other helicopter pilots were seeing,” Lyons said.
Leone has earned a long list of Coast Guard awards and accolades in his nine years in the service.
Smith said Friday the 2010 crash happened following a fly over of an agency vessel. The crew had flown just 70 feet above a lone 47-foot Coast Guard motor life boat in the water that had left a nearby Coast Guard station, apparently as a gesture of “camaraderie of shipmates,” Smith said.
“This was not on a lark,” Smith said, noting witnesses have testified it’s a customary gesture in the Coast Guard culture to fly over Coast Guard vessels. “ ... (It was to say,) ‘We stand ready with you, shipmate.’ It was costly mistake. It was human error that was brought about by the trap that was set by the Coast Guard.”
Fields, during closing remarks, argued Leone was responsible for navigation and safety duties as copilot, and should have been on “very vigilant” and on “high alert” for at least three reasons: He was in an unfamiliar location (Leone had just been transferred to the Sitka base from a station in Elizabeth City just nine days prior to the crash); they were overflying a vessel; and because they were flying at a low altitude below 200 feet.
“The results were disastrous and lethal,” Fields said.
Fields requested that Leone face a court-martial hearing.
Smith set out to show during the duration of the hearing Leone had more than met the standard for what is expected of him in terms of assisting with navigation. Five minutes before the crash, Leone put the MH-60T on a track that would have otherwise missed the cables if the helicopter hadn’t dipped down in altitude to fly over the vessel below, according to testimony. He activated a “coupler” that allows the MH-60T to basically run on autopilot in spite of headwinds, he said.
Forty seconds before the helicopter collided with the wires, the coupler was turned off, unannounced by Krueger, the pilot-in-command. Smith indicated Friday Leone had asked in flight then who had control of the helicopter. It was never said in court who had control of the aircraft when it crashed. 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.
Leone and Krueger were specifically paired up to fly that day by senior officers so they could train together. Leone was experienced in flying the newer T-model of the Jayhawk, with over 270 flying hours, but was new to Alaska and its unique environment and weather conditions. Krueger, on the other hand, was experienced flying in Alaska and was designated by the Coast Guard as being “Alaska area qualified,” but he was new to flying the T-model.
“It was not supposed to be a mindless flight just to get a helicopter from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’” Smith said, noting Krueger was acting as Leone’s mentor since Leone was one of “the new guys” to Alaska.
Leone and Krueger were apparently switching who was in command of the helicopter’s controls, though Leone only was at the helm for less than a minute or two during the flight, Smith said. And when he was in control, he was “raising the altitude of the aircraft,” Smith said.
Leone had the support of friends and family during the three day hearing. His mother, Heather Rice, who could not attend the hearing, wrote the Empire in an email that her son was being blamed as the scapegoat in the crash.
“If you look on all the support pages and articles and Facebook, you will see that this is a very unusual man that should not be singled out for some scapegoat for the Coast Guard,” Rice wrote. “He is a fine human being. I have many of my friends, his teachers, professors, professional pilots and his friends that can vouch for this.”
His wife, Ellen, pregnant with their third child, said the ordeal has taken a toll not just on their family, but the other families as well.
“We were ready move forward after the accident, along with the other families as well,” she said outside the courtroom after the hearing concluded. “They’re finally coming to peace with everything, and now, 18 months later, they bring up the fact again that all of this has happened. And it hurts for them to have to go through that.”
She said she wouldn’t be surprised if Leone were to face a court-martial hearing, “only for the fact that I’ve been told that there’s no reason to go through the Article 32 hearing if (Rear) Adm. (Thomas) Ostebo didn’t have a preconceived notion that he did something wrong, and that he was ready to convict him of any of those charges.”
Norris’ recommendation to Ostebo, the commander of Coast Guard District 17, will not be made public. Ostebo will have 120 days to make a decision. He is not bound by Norris’ recommendation.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.