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Thu, Jan 12, 2012

Coast Guard May Not Prosecute Wire Strike Victim

Pilot Reportedly Deviated From Course Set By Navigator

A US Coast Guard Lieutenant facing serious charges in the 2010 crash of an MH-60 in 2010 could catch a break if the recommendations of an investigator are accepted by a commander.

As ANN reported, 31-year-old Lieutenant Lance Leone earned a long list of Coast Guard awards and accolades, including commendation medals. Witnesses to the accident say that during the flight from Astoria, Oregon to the crew’s base in Sitka, Alaska, the helicopter was flying low and hit power cables strung 1,900 feet from LaPush, Washington to James Island. (Photo: James Island as seen from LaPushby Benjamin Cody.) Leone was pulled from the water by onlookers.

The Coast Guard charged Leone with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and destruction of government property, contending he failed to properly navigate to avoid charted hazards and negligently failed to ensure the helicopter was flying at a higher altitude. He is also being held accountable for the loss of the $18 million aircraft. He could face more than seven years in prison if convicted at a court martial.

Prosecutors tried to make the case that Leone was responsible for the navigation of the aircraft. His civilian attorney countered that the lieutenant programmed a course which would have missed the wires, but that the pilot, Lieutenant Sean Krueger, saw a Coast Guard vessel in the water below and deviated from the programmed course to fly low over the boat. No blame was assigned Krueger for his role in the wire strike.

The Associated Press now reports that it has obtained recommendations from Captain Andrew Norris, an investigating officer, which suggest the charges focus on alleged navigational failures by Leone and tie those to the destruction of a helicopter and death of two crew members. Norris opines, "It is in this focus, and in making this tie, that I believe the charged offenses fail."

A decision on whether to proceed with a court martial will be made by Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, who is not bound by Norris's finding. In the time since the accident, Leone recovered and was cleared to retrain for a return to flight, but was assigned desk duty while the case played out.

The case has been controversial due to the appearance of scapegoating. Maintenance of the power line is officially the responsibility of the US Coast Guard, and the line has taken down two aircraft in the past, one in the late 1950s, and another in 1961.



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