While their intentions may have been honorable, the actions of two Navy helicopter pilots have caused them to be stripped of their flight privileges forever.
In additon, as reported on the Sign On San Diego web site on Wednesday, December 22, 2010, two student pilots will have to repeat training because of a September 13, 2010 incident in which they dipped two $33 million helicopters into Lake Tahoe while trying to take photos for the squadron’s Facebook page, a Navy official stated.
The repercussions came about because a witness who saw the event happened to photograph it, and posted the video, which is attached to this article, on YouTube.
The video shows the two Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopters trying to hover low, about 70 feet over the lake. One apparently loses control for a few seconds, smacks its landing gear in the water, then pulls up. Both aircraft went into the water, though the footage only captured one, Navy officials have said.
Damage to both helicopters sensitive electronic antenna and other equipment totaled $505,000. It would be difficult for the Navy, even without the video documenting the event, to turn a blind eye on such damage.
Two flight instructors, both lieutenants, were at the controls that day. The Navy has blasted them with harsh words for their reckless actions. “Their complacency, lack of flight discipline and succession of poor judgments nearly led to the loss of two aircraft and 10 U.S. Navy sailors for no benefit and did result in the damage of two aircraft. The mishap was entirely preventable,” Vice Admiral Allen Myers, commander of all naval air forces, said in the report. “The aviation community was lucky this day, and a horrific loss of life was narrowly avoided.”
The Navy didn’t name the pilots involved because the punishments they received are considered administrative, and therefore private. A Navy official with knowledge of the case provided the details but declined to be named.
It will be difficult to advance a career in the Navy as an officer with the loss of flight status, having to seek a nonflying job. With tight competition for officer slots, this action could be career-ending. Even if it isn’t the case, such a serious reprimand in an officer’s personnel file will put a crimp on their chances for promotion.
Steve Diamond, a retired Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat pilot, called the punishment just, but “a crushing blow”, that sends a broader signal. “It sends a message to a whole generation of aviators. ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’ So it has a higher purpose. Aviation is unrelenting when it comes to risk and safety.”
The 33-page report also was harshly critical of the squadron involved, HSM-41 at Naval Air Station North Island (NZY), in Coronado, CA, whose purpose is to train pilots to fly the Seahawk. The commanding officer at the time, who was not named, “created a climate that contributed to the mishap,” it concluded.
The year before, the commander himself flew over Lake Tahoe at a low altitude, at about 200 feet above the water. something that had “no valid training or operational reason.” The report also cited the commander for laissez-faire oversight of flights headed outside of San Diego.
That officer was replaced in the squadron 10 days after the September water impact, and is now doing graduate work at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, a Navy spokesman said. His replacement was not held responsible for the incident.
The former commander’s career was not affected by the Tahoe mishap because “ultimately, nothing in the investigation indicated that accountability rested solely with him,” according to Lieutenant Aaron Kakiel, a spokesman for Vice Admiral Allen Myers.
The two Navy helicopters were returning from participating in the California Capital Air Show at the former Mather Air Force Base, which was located east of Sacramento, CA. The report said one of the flight instructors organized the trip because the air show was close to family members in Sacramento. They decided to hover over Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe, so they could get a nearby island in the background of the shot, which they planned to offer for the squadron’s Facebook page.
The Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopter is a workhorse rotary wing aircraft used by the Navy and other military branches for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), naval special warfare (NSW) insertion, search and rescue (SAR), combat search and rescue (CSAR), vertical replenishment (VERTREP), and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). All Navy H-60s carry a rescue hoist for SAR/CSAR missions.
Each aircraft costs $33 million U.S. dollars. It can carry a crew of 3-4, plus 5 passengers or a slung load of 6,000 pounds, or an internal load of 4,100 pounds. It has a maximum speed 168 mph, a never exceed speed of 207 mph, a range of 450 nautical miles, and a service ceiling of 12,000 feet.
Tell us your thoughts. Please leave comments below or by email and subscribe to get future updates. There is also expanded coverage of other recent news articles.