The co-pilot of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that crashed off the Washington coast last year, killing three people, was "not actively navigating" and seemed to be sightseeing with the pilot, a crash investigator said Wednesday.
Capt Timothy Heitsch, who read from the crash report during a military hearing for Lt. Lance Leone, said there was no reason for the aircraft to be flying so low or fast, and the casual conversations captured by the cockpit voice recorder indicated Leone and the pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger, were sightseeing. One of the prosecutors, Cmdr. Matthew Fay, also said an alert system that warns of the helicopter's altitude appeared to have gone off several times during the flight. Heitsch said Krueger and Leone were the only ones on board who would have heard the warning. When asked if he thought it was Leone's duty to ask the pilot about the altitude and speed, Heitsch replied, "I do."
Leone, the sole survivor, is charged with negligent homicide and other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the July 2010 accident. The Article 32 hearing could help determine whether the charges are dropped or whether he will face court martial.
Witnesses to the crash reported that the helicopter was flying low and hit power cables strung 1,900 feet from LaPush, Wash., to James Island. Leone was pulled from the water by good Samaritans.
Witnesses also said the helicopter was traveling fast, estimated in excess of 110 knots (126.6 mph) just before the crash.
The charges came more than a year after the crash and have stunned Leone's family and friends, a number of whom attended the hearing in Juneau. Leone's father said his son had recovered from his injuries and was cleared for flight retraining before learning that he was being charged.
"The whole situation is so ludicrous," said Leone's stepmother, Renee Leone, adding there's been an outpouring of support for Leone.
Leone, 31, who has earned a long list of Coast Guard awards and accolades, was the co-pilot of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter flying from Astoria, Ore., to the crew's base in Sitka.
His duties involved navigation and safety. His attorney, John Smith, set out to show Wednesday that Leone did his job properly.
Smith, in court, said Leone and Krueger engaged in training for a portion of flight. According to Smith and the testimony, Leone had more flight hours in the new model helicopter than Krueger but he also had just transferred to Alaska, and to be a pilot in command in the state, one has to spend a period of time in the state due to its unique terrain and weather.
Smith said Leone set programming that would have resulted in the helicopter flying safely past the wires and other hazards, something Heitsch acknowledged on cross-examination.
Krueger at some point changed the setting without warning to the rest of the crew, and the aircraft went from about 240 feet to about 115 feet before striking the wires, according to cross-examination testimony.
Smith also began going through the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, seeking to show that Leone helped run through safety checklists and watch for hazards. He noted at one point Leone said, "Bald eagle, 11, no factor," which Heitsch said referred to an eagle at 11 o'clock and no factor in the flight path. Smith also noted comments between Krueger and Leone about the wind.
Leone faces charges of negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property. The charge sheet states Leone failed to properly navigate the helicopter to avoid charted hazards and that he negligently failed to ensure it was flying at a higher altitude.
It also alleges that he did "without proper authority, through neglect, destroy by causing the crash of CG-6017," an aircraft valued at $18.3 million.
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.
Capt. Andrew Norris, a Coast Guard judge advocate stationed in Rhode Island, is the investigating officer during the Article 32 hearing. He will make eventual recommendations to the Guard's commanding officer in Alaska, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, for the next course of action. Norris said Wednesday that Ostebo is not bound by any recommendations he makes. Possibilities include dismissal of the charges, administrative action or court-martial. Leone faces a possible maximum penalty that includes 7 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all courts at a court-martial.
Norris has been given a week to make a recommendation after the hearing ends, said Lt. Cmdr. Greg Versaw, a legal spokesman for the case. That recommendation will not be made public. The hearing is expected to last several days.
By BECKY BOHRER