Article 32 hearing continues on chopper crash

Day two of a hearing gets underway on Thursday in Juneau for a Coast Guard officer facing charges related to a helicopter crash off the coast of Washington State last year.

Those who investigated the flight of Coast Guard 6017 said on Wednesday that the crash’s only survivor shirked his duties as co-pilot of the aircraft. His defense says not true. KTOO’s Matt Miller has more.

Lieutenant Lance Leone was the co-pilot of a Coast Guard H-60 helicopter that was being flown from Astoria, Oregon to its new assigned station in Sitka in July of last year. It crashed after striking power lines near La Push, Washington. Leone was the only survivor. Lieutenant Sean Krueger — the pilot – and Aviation Maintenence Technicians Adam Hoke and Brett Banks were killed.

Leone is being charged with dereliction of duty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically its alleged that he failed to navigate the helicopter to avoid hazards and he allowed a flight under 500-feet altitude in a National Wildlife Refuge. He’s being charged – through his alleged neglect – with destruction of $18.3 million worth of government property. He’s also being charged with causing the deaths of Hoke and Banks, but not Krueger.

Wednesday, a civilian helicopter pilot from Seattle, airshow organizer, and writer for helicopter magazines Jennifer Boyer said she witnessed an H-60 flying near Long Beach, Washington that same day in July of last year — believed to be Lt. Leone’s aircraft — and testified that it appeared to be flying less than 150-feet off the ground and as fast as 150-knots on the day of the crash. But under cross examination she admitted that she had sent an email to a Coast Guard officer days after the crash that indicated the chopper wasn’t flying quite that low and fast.

Captain Timothy Heitsch was part of a three-officer Coast Guard team that investigated the crash. He testified that Leone’s helicopter violated regulations for flight through two wildlife refuges. According to him, the chopper was traveling at an altitude of 200-feet and nearly 125-knots for most of the flight. That’s considered the maximum normal operational airspeed for optimum preservation of the aircraft’s mechanics.

An Article 32 hearing is much like a grand jury proceeding or preliminary hearing in civilian criminal court. But – unlike a grand jury – proceedings are open to the public and the accused’s counsel has the ability to cross-examine witnesses. It’s an early chance for the defense to refute the Government’s evidence, but it can also tip the Government to the defense’s hand if the case ever goes to a court martial.

Lt. Leone is flanked in the courtroom by his Navy and Coast Guard legal counsel, and John M. Smith, an Army veteran who has a civilian law practice in Arlington, Virginia. On the other side, two other Coast Guard officers are presenting the Government’s case. In the back of the high-ceilinged courtroom, gallery benches are partially filled with observers including Leone’s wife and brother-in-law, father, stepmother, friends from Sitka, and other Coast Guardsmen and women who knew or served with him. Kyla Krueger, widow of pilot Sean, has flown up from Florida to attend the hearing and provide moral support for Leone.

At times, he looked slightly uneasy and somber, but lightened up when embraced by family and friends or chatted with them during breaks in the hearing. On the advice of his defense attorney, he’s not talking to the media, but his family and friends are, and they all say that Lt. Leone is a good, honest man. As the only survivor of the crash, they feel that he’s being made an example of and singled out as a possible scapegoat by Coast Guard command in a show that the service is serious about safety.

After lunchtime review of the cockpit voice recorder behind closed doors, Captain Timothy Heitsch testified afterwards that an automated audible altitude alarm, heard only by the pilots, went off when the helicopter descended below 200-feet during the flight. He also said the helicopter was traveling at an altitude of 114-feet and speed of 110-knots moments before the crash. In his words, it then “struck the wires and was torn apart by dynamic forces.”

Attorney John Smith referred to the voice recorder’s transcript as he continued questioning Captain Heitsch, sometimes in the form of leading questions, to get him to admit, that yes, Lt. Leone did communicate with Lt. Krueger. He told him about navigational hazards such as a nearby eagle or fixed-wing aircraft, he gave proper notice when his eyes were down in the instruments or when various equipment malfunctions were detected. That may be meant to refute the allegation that Lt Leone was negligent in his duty as safety pilot and co-pilot of the aircraft. Lt. Leone was considered more experienced in flying a newer model of the H-60, but Lt. Krueger was the more experienced Alaskan pilot and pilot-in-command in the right seat whose hands were almost exclusively on the controls during that flight.

Smith also disputed Hietsch’s terminology that claimed that Lt Leone was “excessively heads-down” when training with newer model H-60’s slightly different instruments. And Smith pointed out that it was Lt. Krueger who announced “Couplers off” – meaning that a rudimentary equivalent of an auto-pilot was disengaged as Lt. Krueger bought the aircraft down to 115-feet 40-seconds before the crash.
Testimony has not yet touched on the visibility of the wires and how they were allegedly improperly marked as hazards to aircraft. That may come later.

With a dozen people on the witness list, proceedings now are expected to last into Friday before the hearing’s investigating officer, Coast Guard Captain Andrew Norris of the Naval War College, drafts a set of recommendations. Best analogy, perhaps, is that he’s the equivalent of a grand jury panel in civilian court. He’ll have seven days to suggest dismissal of the charges, administrative or internal discipline (known within the service as an Admiral’s or Captain’s Mast), or a court martial. Those recommendations will be forwarded to Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, head of the 17th Coast Guard District in Alaska. But he is not obligated to follow those recommendations.

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