The Coast Guard’s commander in Alaska took a side door out of Sitka’s airport on Wednesday, avoiding protestors who oppose his decision about the future of a Sitka-based aviator. Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo came to Sitka to meet with Coast Guardsmen from around the state about the aftermath of a 2010 helicopter crash. Three people from Air Station Sitka died in that crash.
As passengers stepped off Alaska Airlines Flight 62 on Wednesday, they came face-to-face with a small group of protestors.
The group of 10 or so people held signs in the lobby of Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport. One had the name Ostebo on it, crossed out with a circle and slash. Another said “We support the USCG unlike you.”
The group was hoping to get the attention of Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, and one of the passengers on the morning jet.
They said they are upset Ostebo pursued disciplinary action against Leone. Leonefaced criminal charges in the crash of Coast Guard helicopter 6017, which went down in July 2010 off the coast of Washington State. The criminal charges were dismissed, but Leone’s attorneys say remarks Ostebo made on Leone’s service record jeopardize his chances of getting back in the cockpit.
The group picketing in the airport might have attracted Ostebo’s attention, but they didn’t get any of his time. As passengers walked from the boarding hallway into the airport’s lobby, Ostebo exited through a side door. Air Station Sitka and the airport sit almost side-by-side, and it’s possible to move from one to the other without entering a public part of the airport.
Coast Guard aviators arrive at Air Station Sitka for a meeting with Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska. Ostebo called the meeting to go over the final report of a 2010 helicopter crash that killed three people from Air Station Sitka. The crash also resulted in disciplinary action against the co-pilot and sole survivor, Lt. Lance Leone. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)
In the parking lot afterward, protest organizer Mike Finn said if he had been able to talk to Ostebo, he would have asked him why he disciplined Leone.
“Why, after two boards have told him there’s nothing there, give Lance his wings back, his commander here has told him to give him back his wings,” Finn said. “He’s a qualified pilot. You don’t come to Alaska not being qualified. The very best pilots come up here, and he has chosen to taken this mission on by himself and follow what he believes is right.”
Finn says Leone had nothing to do with organizing the protest.
“This is our own group,” he said. “This is how we feel about Ostebo. Anything we’ve done on anything has nothing to do with Lance. Lance is not involved with this at all. I know this is the feeling throughout the entire Coast Guard, so I’m happy to represent that.”
Leone’s private attorney, John Smith, is planning a challenge to Ostebo’s remarks on his client’s service record. Smith says evidence brought out during the criminal proceedings against Leone exonerates him of any blame in the crash. In a strongly-worded commentary distributed to both the Daily Sitka Sentinel and KCAW, Smith invoked the anti-Communism hearings held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
Smith wrote: “It is important to ask Adm. Ostebo and the Coast Guard’s senior leadership the same question lawyer Joseph Welch asked Sen. Joe McCarthy during the famous Army McCarthy hearings in 1954: ‘Have you no sense of decency?’”
Smith says both Ostebo and the Coast Guard’s report on the accident ignoring evidence demonstrating Leone’s innocence. That includes the wires the helicopter clipped to cause the crash. The report does mention them and says they should have been better marked. But it says it’s speculative as to whether that would have prevented the crash. Smith says the Coast Guard was negligent in not marking them properly.
The Coast Guard’s report is called the Final Action Memo, or FAM, for short. (PDF: Read the memo.)
“Adm. Ostebo, in briefing the Coast Guard’s FAM, does not merely follow McCarthy’s precedent of half-truths. He will commit a far more serious blow to the truth,” Smith said. “He will disregard evidence demonstrating Lt. Leone’s innocence and therefore, purposefully shield Coast Guard leadership from accountability for egregious lapses of safety concerns.”
KCAW requested an interview with Ostebo through the District office in Juneau. A Coast Guard spokesman said the admiral had a tight schedule and would be returning immediately to Juneau, without time for interviews. The Coast Guard would not say how long Ostebo is in town, citing security procedures.
The gate at Air Station Sitka was closed Wednesday morning, with only authorized personnel admitted. Typically, the Air Station’s grounds are open to the public. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)
Ostebo’s meeting at Air Station Sitka was not open to the public. Only authorized personnel were allowed on to Air Station property on Wednesday. The main gate was closed, and IDs were being checked as cars pulled up. Typically, the public has access to both the Air Station grounds and the beach beyond.
Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow is a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Alaska. He says Ostebo was directed by the Coast Guard’s vice commandant in Washington, D.C., to hold the briefing in Sitka.
“The Coast Guard has a tradition of very close ties with the communities we serve in. When incidents and accidents happen, there are a lot of emotions involved,” Wadlow said. “The reason why the Coast Guard takes things like this so seriously is because we value our people.”
Wednesday’s meeting included aviators from Sitka, Kodiak and other parts of the United States. Wadlow says Ostebo went over the final action memo, and the steps the Coast Guard plans to take in order to prevent future accidents.