Helo pilot, CG command await report on crash charges

The hearing into a Coast Guard pilot’s alleged negligence is over. The Article 32 proceeding wrapped up Friday afternoon in Juneau after the last round of witnesses. Lieutenant Lance Leone is the only survivor of last year’s fatal Coast Guard helicopter crash off the coast of Washington State.

Friday morning, some of the pilots that Leone flew with testified to his skills and professionalism.

A Federal Aviation Administration official testified that he would’ve likely recommended better warning measures for a set of power lines near La Push, Washington had he been called in to evaluate the site. Leone’s H-60T flew into the lines and crashed.

The pilot at the controls of the H-60T was Lieutenant Sean Krueger. He was killed in the crash along with Aviation Maintenance Technicians Adam Hoke and Brett Banks.

Government counsel or Coast Guard lawyers serving as prosecutors said that Leone showed no reasonable duty of care as navigator and co-pilot of that flight. Leone’s civilian defense council said the “U.S. Coast Guard set a trap that was spring-loaded and that had already worked twice before.” The power lines were owned and operated by the Coast Guard and they were already considered as factors in at least two other accidents.

Ellen Leone believes her husband is being prosecuted simply because the La Push crash was the last in a string of accidents suffered by the Coast Guard. In the end, she suspects it will backfire on the service.

“It doesn’t bode well for other pilots in the Coast Guard to say that ‘If you survive an accident, no matter what did or didn’t do, (then) watch out.’ Because they might come after you.”

Pat Coyle is a medical airlift pilot now based in Juneau. While in Sitka, he befriended a young Coast Guard aviator – not realizing at first that he was the sole survivor of CG 6017. Coyle says he hopes Leone returns to the cockpit soon.

“I don’t think the crime fits the punishment,” said Coyle. “No matter what negligence you point at the guy.”

Coyle was among the friends and colleagues who attended the three-day hearing.

Many Coast Guardsmen and women who knew Leone from his previous posting in North Carolina took leave to attend the hearing in uniform, but they declined to comment on tape.

Another observer traveled all the way from Florida. Kyla Krueger was the wife of Lieutenant Sean Krueger. She came to provide moral support for Leone and his family. She also wanted answers.

“The Coast Guard did not afford me the opportunity to hear any of this going into this situation with the Article 32 hearing,” said Krueger who was reluctant to rely on second-hand information or reports from the media. “The vast majority of the information I’m hearing for the first time in a factual manner.”

Captain Andrew Norris, who lead the Article 32 hearing, says he’ll consider an additional specification of dereliction of duty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice against Leone. Norris was already investigating Leone for one count of dereliction for failing to navigate the helicopter to avoid hazards. Leone is also charged with destruction of government property, and negligently causing the deaths of Hoke and Banks.

The new dereliction charge is for not following proper Crew Resource Management procedures. It follows testimony Thursday from Leone’s commanding officer, Air Station Sitka Commander Doug Cameron, who suggested Leone may have been reluctant to question Krueger as the helicopter’s pilot-in-command. Cameron speculated that Leone deferred to Krueger, because of rank and experience.

The Article 32 hearing – similar to a grand jury proceeding in civilian court – began on Wednesday. Formal motions and one last piece of written testimony will be considered on Monday. Then Norris will make a recommendation to Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District in Alaska. Ostebo will decide whether to drop the charges, pursue discipline internally, or through a court martial.

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