Sunday, March 18, 2012

Coast Guard co-pilot contributed to crew deaths on Astoria-Sitka flight, commander finds

JUNEAU, Alaska -- The actions of the lone survivor of the deadly 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash off the Washington coast directly contributed to the deaths of his colleagues and the destruction of the aircraft, according to the Coast Guard's commander in Alaska, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo.

Ostebo, in administrative remarks for Lt. Lance Leone's personnel file, said Leone's failure to perform his required duties directly contributed to the accident. A copy of the remarks was obtained by The Associated Press.

This comes less than two weeks after the Coast Guard dismissed negligent homicide and other charges against Leone in connection with the crash.

Leone, who is based in Sitka, was called to Juneau to meet with Ostebo on Sunday.

The potential for administrative action -- like having remarks entered into Leone's personnel file -- was known at the time of the dismissal. Ostebo's report does not detail any possible punishment; it merely says that Leone is to adhere to all applicable laws, regulations and policies and that any "additional violations can lead to further administrative actions and/or military justice action."

Leone refused to sign the report, on advice of counsel.

He was the co-pilot of an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter flying from Astoria, Ore., to the crew's base in Sitka, when it hit an unmarked span of low-hanging wires and crashed off the Washington coast. Killed in the crash were pilot Sean Krueger, of Connecticut, and crewmen Brett Banks, of Wyoming, and Adam C. Hoke, of Montana.

Leone, who has earned Coast Guard awards and accolades, had recovered from his injuries and been cleared for flight re-training when he was charged last year with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property.

He was accused of not actively navigating or challenging Krueger's decision to drop in altitude seconds before the helicopter hit a 1,900-foot span of wires and crashed.

An investigating officer, who presided over a three-day military hearing in December, recommended to Ostebo that the charges be dropped.

The wires, the site of at least two other accidents, were the Coast Guard's responsibility. They sloped from 190 feet to about 36 feet. At the time of the 2010 crash, marking balls were not along the span but instead pooled near a pole, above land at the low point. The helicopter hit at about 114 feet, according to testimony and the hearing record.

One of the prosecutors, during the December hearing, said there was no requirement that the lines be marked since they were lower than 200 feet. The crash's lead investigator in testimony said the unmarked wires contributed to the accident but also said there was no reason for the aircraft to be flying so low.

Leone's civilian attorney John Smith argued during the hearing that Leone had programmed the helicopter on a track that would have missed the wires, but that Krueger deviated from it, dropping in altitude as he flew over a Coast Guard vessel in the channel. Seconds later, the aircraft struck the wires.

This point was not challenged during the hearing. The investigating officer, Capt. Andrew Norris, in his report in January said the helicopter had been on a track that would have avoided the wires before Krueger deviated from that track.

In Ostebo's administrative remarks, he states that Leone at some point during the flight, "entered a course and heading into the onboard navigation system that had the aircraft fly directly toward a charted navigational hazard." He said Leone did not warn Krueger of the hazard he'd "directed the aircraft toward."

He does not specify that hazard but the report then goes into the last seconds of the flight, just before the wires were struck.

"As the co-pilot, your duties included serving as the safety pilot and ensuring the safe navigation of the aircraft," Ostebo said near the beginning of his remarks. "Your failure to perform your required duties directly contributed to the crash of the aircraft and the deaths of the crew."

Smith, in an email Sunday, said this "is a sad day for the CG and Coast Guard aviation." CG refers to Coast Guard.

Smith said Ostebo's "failure to acknowledge the CG's failure to properly mark, inspect and maintain the wires, and its failure to act on reports of the unsafe condition from its own senior (non-commissioned officers), exposes the action against Lt. Leone as mere scapegoating."

A message seeking comment was left with the Coast Guard Sunday.

Norris, during the military hearing, also investigated whether Leone was derelict in his duty for not advising Krueger that they were flying too low at certain points in the flight and recommending a rise in altitude. The allegation arose from the hearing. Prosecutors said they didn't seek it.

Norris, in his January report, said he believed there were "reasonable grounds" to believe Leone had "committed the crime of negligent dereliction of duty" for not questioning or speaking up about the altitude. But he said proving that required speculation as to what Krueger may have done if Leone had spoken up, and he said he did not believe the government could prove this link "to a reasonable fact-finder."

Norris said he didn't believe disciplinary action was warranted in that instance but said it could be addressed through training and other "non-punitive measures."


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