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Defense: Coast Guard set ‘trap’ with wires

December 10, 2011

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A military hearing for the sole survivor of a Coast Guard helicopter crash ended Friday, with the defense arguing that the Guard had “set a trap” by not marking the power lines hit by the aircraft.

Prosecutor Lt. Stanley Fields dismissed the concerns about the wires as “red herrings,” and argued Lt. Lance Leone did not fulfill his duties as a co-pilot and should face court martial over the crash that killed three people.

Leone, 31, is charged with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property in connection with the July 2010 crash off the Washington coast.

On Friday, Capt. Andrew Norris, the investigating officer presiding over the Article 32 hearing, said he planned to investigate an additional charge of dereliction of duty for failure to employ proper crew resource management, a reference to to communications in the cockpit.

The prosecution said it did not seek the new charge.

Leone, who has earned a long list of Coast Guard awards and accolades, was co-piloting an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Astoria, Ore., to the crew’s base in Sitka, Alaska, when it crashed off LaPush, Wash. He is accused of not actively navigating or challenging the pilot’s decision to drop in altitude seconds before the helicopter hit the 1,900-foot span of wires and crashed.

The wires, which were the site of at least two other accidents in 1961 and the late 1950s, were the responsibility of the Coast Guard, and they sloped from 190 feet to about 36 feet. At the time of the 2010 crash, marking balls were pooled near a pole, above land, at the low point, not along the span. The helicopter hit at about 114 feet, according to testimony and the court record.

One of the prosecutors, Cmdr. Matthew Fay, said there was no requirement the lines be marked because they were below 200 feet. The crash’s lead investigator called the lines a contributing factor but also said there was no reason for the aircraft to be flying so low.

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

He called it a “costly human error,” caused by “the trap” set by the Coast Guard.

“There is an arrogance about saying, Gee whiz, you know why we didn’t mark them? Because we didn’t have to,” Smith said during closing statements. Since the crash, the lines, which had been used to power lighting at James Island, have been replaced by a generator.

Witnesses who have worked with Leone attested to his experience in the cockpit, saying they never knew him to be negligent or a risk taker.

Cmdr. Kevin Lyons, who worked with Leone at Elizabeth City, N.C., cited an incident in which Leone as co-pilot spoke up when he saw another helicopter involved in efforts to medevac sailors off one ship landing on the wrong ship.

The defense has cast Leone as a recent transfer to Sitka, learning from his mentor and a more experienced Alaska flyer, Lt. Sean Krueger.

On Thursday, the commanding officer of Air Station Sitka, Cmdr. William Cameron, said that if anything would have stopped the crash, it would have been strong crew resource management skills.

But Cameron also said he didn’t think Krueger would have listened to Leone had Leone spoken up about the drop in altitude, saying he believed Krueger was comfortable in what he was doing.

The flight plan called for the helicopter to hug the coastline but prescribed no set altitude. Cameron also said it’s customary for a Coast Guard helicopter to fly over an agency vessel.

The negligent homicide charges are related to the deaths of Brett Banks, 33, of Rock Springs, Wyo., and Adam C. Hoke, 40, of Great Falls, Mont. There is no charge related to the death of Krueger, 33, of Seymour, Conn. His wife attended all three days of the hearing.

Leone’s wife, Ellen, who is expecting their third child, said her husband still loves the Coast Guard but the situation has been mentally and physically draining. She said there’s been a great outpouring of support.

“I pray that our lawyers will do everything in their power to not only show he’s not guilty but that he’s innocent,” she said. “There’s a difference.”

Norris, a Coast Guard judge advocate stationed in Rhode Island, will make recommendations to the Coast Guard commander in Alaska, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, for the next course of action. Norris said Ostebo is not bound by any recommendations he makes.

Possibilities include dismissal of the charges, administrative action or court-martial. Leone could face a possible maximum penalty that includes 7 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all courts at a court-martial.

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