This is the first of a three-part interview with Lt. Lance Leone, the sole survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash, in which three people from Air Station Sitka died.
The MH-60 Jayhawk, known by its tail number, 6017, had been upgraded in Elizabeth City, N.C.
An aircrew of four left Air Station Sitka to pick up the new chopper in Astoria, Ore., and fly it back to Alaska.
On July 7, 2010, during the first leg of that return flight, the helicopter struck wires near La Push, Wash., and crashed into the sea.
Lt. Sean Krueger, who was the pilot in command, along with Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Hoke and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brett Banks, were killed.
Leone, the co-pilot, faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the crash. Those charges were dismissed, but he was admonished by District headquarters and later transferred to a desk job in San Antonio, Texas.
He spoke to KCAW last week. It is the first time he’s talked on the record to a news organization, and we’re going to bring you the interview in three parts. Here, we begin just before the crash, which happened shortly after Leone transferred to Air Station Sitka.
Leone was recorded Nov. 12 at the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. His attorney, John Smith, listened in on the conversation from his office near Washington, D.C., but did not prevent his client from answering any of our questions.
In the next part, Leone describes the accident, and how it changed his life and his career forever. And in the third part, Leone will talk about the charges he faced after the crash and his future in the Coast Guard.
The segments will air Monday through Wednesday this week on the Morning Interview at 8:18 a.m.
LEONE: I literally had just gotten there. I was still living in a bed and breakfast in the community because my household goods had not arrived yet. So, all of our couches, all of our stuff had not arrived yet from Elizabeth City, because it was taking a barge around the whole world. I don’t know where it went exactly.
KCAW: It felt like the whole world.
LEONE: It felt like that.
KCAW: If we can begin with when you first get to Astoria: Was it the morning of? Or the night before?
LEONE: We were assigned to fly down to Astoria in the Juliet model. 6017 was flying from Elizabeth City, which was an aircraft I’d flown before quite a bit. It was flying across the country and we were flying down from Sitka. We were going to rendezvous in Astoria, exchange paperwork on the two different aircraft, and then the pilots were going to shake hands, swap aircraft, and we were going to fly back to Sitka, and the other aircraft was going to fly back to Elizabeth City. It’s an often done thing in the Coast Guard. Our large depot maintenance is all done in Elizabeth City, so we have to switch our aircraft out.
KCAW: What does it feel like to pick up a new chopper? Is it like driving a car off a lot, or…
LEONE: So, it’s interesting … 6017, I had actually flown it the whole time I was in Elizabeth City. I’d done most of the test flights on it when it came out of the depot maintenance. I’d flown it. When we say it’s brand new, it was refurbished. We’d bought these (MH-)60s in 1991 through 1993 – that timeframe – and they’re the same aircraft. They look absolutely gorgeous always, because we have some of the best maintainers in the world. They’re not brand new, but they are totally, beautifully refurbished. The 6017 had sat in Elizabeth City and I’d flown it on cases in Elizabeth City. It was great to go from the J model to the T model. It was like a new aircraft even though they’ve just been kind of polished and re-done from the inside, like they do with most aircraft that you fly on in the commercial world. They just replace all the parts.
Leone says he was selected for the mission two days beforehand. He and Lt. Sean Krueger, the chopper’s pilot, had met at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. And although Leone had known Krueger for most of his adult life, this would be one of their first times flying together.
As co-pilot, Leone’s responsibility was inside the cockpit – to monitor equipment and navigate the helicopter along a safe course.
LEONE: The morning of the mishap, we all woke up, we had breakfast at a hotel in Astoria. Everyone was very happy to have had the opportunity to go to Astoria. It was one of the warmest couple days on record down there. Leaving Sitka, heading down to Astoria where it was beautiful, taking the opportunity to do lots of shopping at Costco. We were all very motivated to get back home.
We’d spent three days talking about, on the way down, what we were going to do on the way back up. How the weather, what the winds were going to be affecting. We did a lot of talking around the dinner table and the breakfast table that morning about some of the different things we were going to have to experience.
The morning was fairly hurried, because we knew we had a long way to go. Nine-hundred miles with a possible 20-knot headwind depending what altitude we were at was going to make it a very long day, so we knew we had to get on the road. We got all the checklists completed, a lot of busy-ness on the ground.
We took off, climbed to 800 feet, and upon reaching 800 feet, we realized we’d had a headwind that was predicted. We came right back down again to a lower altitude. It was more of an off-shore or on-shore breeze, because there are cliffs all along that shoreway there. And flying up, it was just an absolutely gorgeous day.
The Jayhawk had been upgraded with a new avionics system – those are the electronics that control the helicopter. It included a new autopilot system. Leone refers to it as a “coupler.”
LEONE: When you cross through into Canadian airspace, you have to tell them exactly what time and what location you’ll be crossing into that airspace. So I set that track, I told them how far away it was, and I engaged our auto pilot, which couples up the flight controls with the path I’d set. The path was an offshore path that hit a point on the Canadian airspace, which we would then tell them we were going to fly through there.
KCAW: So Canadian authorities know exactly where you’re going to be, and that that’s you.
LEONE: That’s correct. And we were making jokes about it. I don’t think Canadians ever shot down an American plane headed north. It’s way more important going into American airspace, but you give them the same courtesy that they give us.
Krueger was an experienced pilot whose career included a three-year exchange program with the British Royal Navy. But Leone had more experience with the helicopter’s new systems, especially the autopilot.
LEONE: I was very excited to show him how you can engage it. It will fly itself. As long as you keep it away from obstacles, and have the right altitude, it will fly you safely to wherever you tell it to fly you.
By this time, Coast Guard helicopter 6017 was nearing La Push, Wash.
The small town on the Olympic Peninsula is home to the Quileute Tribe, as well as a small Coast Guard boat station.
LEONE: We both saw something up ahead. It was a Coast Guard cutter leaving port – actually, a Coast Guard small boat, a 47-footer, leaving (Station) Quillayute (River).
The helicopter was flying at 220 feet when Krueger began moving it closer to the boat.
Leone says it’s a maneuver pilots often perform at sea when checking on fishing boats or spotting a Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard’s report on the accident acknowledges that performing the maneuver is not isolated to this incident, but says vessels should not be “zoomed” except in an emergency or during rescue operations.
Leone describes the next 42 seconds, when helicopter 6017 slowed to 115 knots, descended to 114 feet, and passed over the boat.
LEONE: At this time, (Krueger) said “coupler disengaged” and he started a righthand turn down in a decreasing altitude along the coastline. At this point in the flight recorder it gets very interesting. I say “Well, that’s Quillayute.” And I say it wrong. I can’t read it. It’s a very difficult word. It’s like many Tlingit terms that are very hard for us to read in our language. But I said it, and on the third time of saying it, moments later, we hit something we never saw. And … I was … at that moment, everything changed.