Coast Guard Helicopter Crash Survivor Denied Promotion

Lt. Lance Leone, in Sitka
Lt. Lance Leone, in Sitka

The sole survivor of a Coast Guard helicopter crash has been denied promotion, possibly ending his military career.

Lt. Lance Leone was one of four people aboard an Air Station Sitka helicopter when it crashed off the coast of Washington state in 2010. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed an order last week removing him from the list of officers scheduled for promotion.

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In August, Leone was passed over for promotion to lieutenant commander. He appealed and the case made its way up to Napolitano’s desk. As the secretary of Homeland Security, she oversees the Coast Guard. Napolitano issued her decision May 23, upholding a November ruling on the case.

“The military is what is affectionately known as an up-or-out system,” said John Smith, Leone’s civilian attorney. “If you don’t get promoted, you will not be able to stay in the service, in whatever capacity, in most instances.”

The denial of Leone’s promotion could signal the beginning of the end for his military career. That’s not to say the door is closed on him yet. He’s up for another regularly scheduled promotion review in August. And Smith says they could also ask the Coast Guard board that handles military records to remove the negative reports from Leone’s official file.

“It’s possible he could get promoted,” Smith said. “He’s gotten two more officer evaluation reports since he was taken off the list, both of which are stellar. So, there’s a chance, but not much of one.”

Leone was co-pilot of the H-60 helicopter, which was en route from Astoria, Oregon, to Sitka when it crashed. The helicopter was flying fast and low — and off its flight plan — when it clipped some Coast Guard wires between the mainland and an island off the coast of La Push, Wash., and went into the water below.

Three of the four people aboard died, and in late 2011, the Coast Guard filed charges against Leone. Those charges were ultimately dropped, but the Coast Guard officially reprimanded Leone, saying he contributed to the accident by failing to question the pilot’s sudden change of course.

Leone and his team maintain there was nothing he could have done to prevent the accident, and that he was operating within the normal bounds of his training. They blame the Coast Guard for not removing the wires across the channel, which were no longer in use, and had been the source of accidents in the past.

“I get so close to accomplishing the next goal, and then it’s just pulled away,” Leone said in a phone interview with KCAW on Wednesday. He hasn’t flown since the accident, and is now working a Coast Guard desk job in San Antonio, Texas. He says he plans to continue fighting for a promotion.

“I was surprised but I’m not totally disheartened by the fact that it happened,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and I think I have to continue this path and follow through and make sure the right thing does eventually happen.”

Interview: Hear Leone’s November 2012 interview with KCAW.

Smith, the attorney, has stronger words about Leone’s non-promotion.

“This action is vindictive,” Smith said. “Nothing short of vindictive. I think the Coast Guard leadership chose Lt. Leone as a scapegoat.”

The Coast Guard says its actions are about standards, not scapegoats.

“This is an unfortunate situation. Nobody really wins,” Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Diaz said. “The Coast Guard needs to be consistent with the review process and the way they keep their standards.”

Diaz cited the Coast Guard’s final report on the 2010 accident — the document that said Leone was partly at fault for the crash. He said the results of that report require the Coast Guard to take action.

“People expect us to have high standards, especially in the aviation community, where it is a really unforgiving business,” he said. “Unfortunately, in this case, we have seen how dangerous it can be.”

Leone, meanwhile, says he’s still hoping to advance to lieutenant commander, but that he’s also starting to consider his options after the Coast Guard. If he’s passed over in August, Smith says Leone will have about a year left in the Coast Guard.

Smith said he believes his client will be OK.

“Lt. Leone is going to succeed at whatever he does,” Smith said. “He just hopes, and I hope for him, that it will be in the Coast Guard.”

Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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