A report claims the destroyer William P. Lawrence's high-speed maneuvering in high seas led to tragedy when a helicopter tumbled overboard. (Navy)
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A high-level investigation into a helicopter crash that killed two pilots last September in the Red Sea faulted the commanding officer of the destroyer William P. Lawrence, concluding that the ship’s high-speed maneuvering through 7-foot high seascreated dangerous conditions as the helicopter’s crew attempted to secure the aircraft after landing.
Soon after an MH-60S Knighthawk landed on the destroyer’s flight deck, the ship hit a flank bell and began to lurch from side to side, bringing a “wall of water” over the starboard side that smashed into the helicopter’s rotors, the Pacific Fleet report said. The helicopter’s tail broke, and it washed overboard with the aircrew still inside, the Pacific Fleet report said.
Three aircrew were rescued from the water that day, Sept. 22, but the Navy called off the search for the helicopter and the pilots a day later. The mishap claimed the lives of Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Gibson, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6 based out of Naval Air Station North Island, California.
Carrier Air Wing 11 did the command investigation into the mishap, sending it up the chain of command to Destroyer Squadron 23, Carrier Strike Group 11, 5th Fleet, Naval Surface Force Pacific and Naval Air Force Pacific.
Of the six endorsers, only AIRPAC faulted the Lawrence’s CO for the incident. SURFPAC said the ship’s course to rendezvous with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group led it into the rough waters, but it wasn’t due to Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur’s negligence.
However, AIRPAC argued that Vavasseur’s decision to order top speed amid rough seas led to a “cumulative catastrophic outcome” — one that likely could have been averted by a slower speed or safer course, with the seas not coming in on the ship’s quarter.
Despite the ship’s rocking leading up to the incident, including a 12-degree roll two minutes before the helicopter was swept away, Vavasseur stayed on course, AIRPAC boss Vice Adm. David Buss wrote in the report released in May.
Adm. Harry Harris, the head of the Pacific Fleet, made the final call and sided with AIRPAC. Harris laid the blame with Vavasseur for taking unnecessary risks in frothing seas. He also noted the lack of training for frigate and destroyer COs in similar mishaps.
Though the Lawrence’s high-speed maneuvering was within operating parameters, he wrote, “I expect my commanding officers to exercise independent thought and sound judgment.”
Vavasseur, who has 20 years experience in the surface Navy, received a counseling letter following the incident. She transferred command of the Lawrence as scheduled last December, and is now assigned to a staff position at SURFPAC.
Vavasseur, 41, did not respond to emails and Facebook messages seeking comment by May 23.
Harris concluded that pushing the ship at 30-plus knots while turning into rough water, with a helicopter on deck, rotors turning, led to the mishap.
“There was time to rectify the situation by simply reducing speed after taking [the helo] aboard; a significant reduction in speed, thereby creating a more stable platform, could have been achieved in seconds,” Harris added.
He acknowledged that some might find his conclusion harsh, given his belief that the Navy hadn’t properly trained ship captains for the situation Vavasseur found herself in, but that he expects COs to problem-solve under pressure — with the crew’s safety foremost.
According to the report, Vavasseur was trying to make best time to relieve an escort ship with the Nimitz.
The time-pressure felt in surface warfare officer culture might have contributed to Vavasseur’s decision-making, said retired Capt. Rick Hoffman, who commanded the frigate DeWert and the cruiser Hue City, and reviewed the PACFLT investigation.
“We SWOs tend to focus on objectives and goals and so on, and we lose sight of the immediate challenge,” Hoffman said in a May 22 phone interview. “We’ve beaten into our SWOs the idea of the clock being a critical element of assessing professionalism.”
However, he said, Vavasseur made a critical mistake in trying to make her on-station goal.
“The priority was wrong. Priority No. 1 is, get that helicopter safely on board,” he said. “The reality is, that on-station thing? It’s mushy.”
Hoffman explained that even if Vavasseur promised the Nimitz she’d be there at a certain time, that time is flexible based on conditions, and she should have secured the helo before moving on to the next task.
Hoffman added that in her mind, Vavasseur may have thought the chained-down helicopter seemed squared away, even if the rotors were turning and the crew were still inside.
“Chocked and chained, in our world, that’s secure,” he said. “But again, if I’m tossing and turning, if I’m bouncing around, you just have to be a little bit more cautious.”
Harris ordered a safety standdown for all helo squadrons, frigates and destroyers by May 30, to discuss the danger of “seawater intrusion” and how it contributed to this and other accidents.■