The Coast Guard’s commander in Alaska officially admonished a Sitka-based aviator over the weekend for his actions in a fatal helicopter crash.
Three of the four people on board Coast Guard helicopter 6017 died when it crashed in July 2010 near La Push, Wash.
The helicopter’s co-pilot, Lt. Lance Leone, survived the crash and faced criminal charges that were dismissed earlier this month.
Leone met Sunday with Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo to review a final report on the crash. Ostebo also entered remarks into Leone’s personnel file that could mean an uncertain future for the aviator’s military career.
Leone’s attorney says he’ll challenge the admiral’s official remarks.
The 12-page “final action memorandum” comes from Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, the vice commandant in Washington, D.C.
It says Leone and pilot-in-command Lt. Sean Krueger failed to comply with altitude restrictions, which contributed to the helicopter striking electrical wires between La Push, Wash., and a nearby island. It says the flight plan listed a level of 1,000 feet, but that the chopper was below 200 feet for nearly two thirds of its flight between Astoria, Oregon and the crash site, some 125 miles north.
The report goes on to say that minor procedural lapses, such as not completing required checklists were followed by significant errors in judgment. And it says some pilots at Air Station Sitka have become habituated to low-level flight when conditions do not require it.
Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Veronica Colbath confirmed that Leone met with Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, on Sunday, to go over the final report.
Colbath says she can’t comment on the remarks Ostebo entered into Leone’s personnel file, and that the Coast Guard cannot release them.
Leone’s attorney, John Smith, also said he can’t release Ostebo’s remarks. But he said they echo the memo from headquarters, saying Leone’s failure to perform his duties directly contributed to the deaths of his shipmates and the destruction of the helicopter.
“Clearly, he’s disappointed,” Smith said of his client. “Having your commander as well as the Coast Guard – the organization that you love – tell the world that you directly contributed to the deaths of your crewmates, your fellow Coast Guardsmen, that’s a pretty heavy weight to put on somebody. I think Lt. Leone would gladly take that on if the Coast Guard would meet him halfway and take responsibility for what they failed to do. But that’s not the case here.”
Smith takes exception to a number of conclusions in the crash report. But here, he’s talking about the wires the helicopter struck.
Smith says the Coast Guard should have acted sooner on warnings it received about those power lines. The memo says the lines were marked on navigational charts, but it also acknowledges that a lack of adequate markings on the lines “may have contributed to this mishap.”
The power lines were maintained by the Coast Guard, and have since been removed and replaced with a generator.
According to the report, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require markings for lines below 200 feet, but the warning balls that were attached were smaller than those normally used and were faded and required replacement.
Earlier this month, when the Coast Guard dismissed the criminal charges against Leone, Smith said he was hopeful his client would return to flight. Leone was determined suitable for duty as a Coast Guard aviator last year, but his re-certification was canceled when the charges were filed. The final report released this week directs Coast Guard officials to reconsider whether Leone is suitable for flight duty.
Smith says that, coupled with the remarks in his personnel file mean an uncertain future for Leone’s military career.
“This kind of administrative remark really can mean that Lt. Leone would not be promoted again,” Smith said. “It’s possible that his current promotion – he’s on the list to be promoted – might be re-looked. We haven’t heard anything from the Coast Guard yet about that.”
As for the future, the report includes a number of recommendations and directives about how the Coast Guard can change its safety practices. For example, the Coast Guard will review the way it trains aircrews to interact, it will develop the ability for a helicopter’s crew to hear the same warnings that are available to the pilots, and will study the feasibility of equipping Coast Guard helicopters with wire strike prevention systems already in use by the Department of Defense.