David Larter and Meghann Myers
A helicopter technician was sitting atop Cutlass 460, working with 115 volts, when the wave rose from the Atlantic and crashed into the secured helo. The crest drenched the chained SH-60 Seahawk and startled the tech, as well as another sailor sitting in the cockpit with the door ajar on the destroyer Winston S. Churchill. Both walked away uninjured, but the squadron found it troubling enough to report it to higher-ups. Previous waves had damaged helicopter engines and nearly washed sailors overboard, a common hazard on a destroyer flight deck that rides only 13 feet above the waterline.
“History has demonstrated that the hull design and low flight deck of the [Arleigh Burke-class flight IIA destroyer] adds new challenges to an inherently dangerous … environment,” the commander of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 46 wrote in the warning message. “Water over the deck on DDGs is a known hazard and we have been lucky so far that no one has been hurt. We should be proactive now to incorporate deck operating limitations before an injury or death ultimately dictates it.”
The incident occurred on October 14, 2004, nine years before a wall of water swept over the flight deck of the destroyer William P. Lawrence and struck a whirling helicopter on the flight deck. The force shattered the MH-60S Knighthawk’s tail rotor assembly and the overhead rotors spun wildly, ripping the helicopter apart in seconds before a horrified crew.
The fuselage of Indian 617 hurtled into the Red Sea, taking the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Gibson and Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones, with it, leaving only pieces of their helmets and breathing apparatuses strewn about the mangled flight deck.
In the decades before the Lawrence tragedy, helicopter pilots and ship crews repeatedly warned about the hazards on low-freeboard flight decks, messages that were either missed or ignored in a breakdown of the Navy systems used to identify and mitigate hazards. They called for changes that, if instituted, might have prevented the deaths, recommendations adopted only after it was too late.
The dangers of wave impacts on frigates and destroyers were reported in 13 hazard reports filed between 1983 and 2013, HAZREPS obtained by Navy Times in a 2-month-long investigation and presented publicly for the first time. These messages are chock full of warnings from aviators that presage the tragedy of Sept. 22, 2013.
Indeed, the William P. Lawrence accident was the third time in 2013 that a destroyer’s flight deck took a severe hit from a wave; a crest damaged a helicopter’s rotors in January and another swept a sailor overboard in March. The sailor was recovered with heavy bruising and found to be suffering from exposure after 30 minutes in the water.
These risks are heightened when a ship moves at high speed during the helicopter landing, a motion that causes the hull to sink lower in the water; Navy engineers estimated that the William P. Lawrence’s flight deck was only 7 feet above the water when the fatal wave crested over.
In the wake of the tragedy, officials have grappled with troubling questions about how the Navy failed to discern and mitigate a hazard that’s been widely known and reported by commanding officers since the arrival,three decades ago, of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the fleet.
“One can only read so many general CO conclusions of, ‘We were lucky, this could have been much worse, and we should address it now,’ before becoming even more troubled by the sequence of events that led to INDIAN 617 being lost at sea,” Cmdr. David Burke, CO of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6, wrote in the safety investigation report into the mishap, obtained by Navy Times. “Naval Aviation saw this hazard early, identified it early, and reported on it repeatedly.”
The Navy acknowledges that officials failed to adequately address the risk of flight deck washout, but said they have taken steps to prevent it from happening again. The Naval Safety Center has hired a lessons-learned manager to send out share mishap information, flight deck rules have changed to take into account sea state and waves, and ship crews are being trained on those new rules.
“The dangers associated with seawater intrusion over the flight deck of DDG 51/79 class ships are well known,” said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman. “Navy leaders concluded that we need to manage these types of risks better; yet in the case of William P. Lawrence we did not and two men were lost.” Naval Air Systems Command, which sets the rules for flight operations, and the Naval Safety Center, which collects and analyzes operational risk reports, declined requests for interviews on the Lawrence tragedy and the changes implemented since.
“The Naval Safety Center has worked aggressively to improve the sharing of hazard and mishap information,” an NSC spokeswoman said, including hiring the lessons-learned manager and establishing a safety management system across the fleet. NSC declined to address the findings of the safety investigation report into the Lawrence tragedy, saying these reports are “privileged and are protected from public release” to encourage witnesses to be open and forthright with investigators.
“The goal of safeguarding this information from the public domain is to ensure future investigations are able to accurately determine root causes — and, ultimately, save lives. Violating this process by publishing Safety Investigation Report (SIR) details compromises our ability to obtain the candid participation we need and rely on from Sailors and Marines.”
Debate continues into the responsibility of the Lawrence’s then-commanding officer, Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur. Adm. Harry Harris, then-head of Pacific Fleet, faulted her for taking “unnecessary risks” by maneuvering at high speed in choppy seas while the helo’s blades were still turning. Vavasseur was counseled but not reprimanded and in December was selected for the rank of captain.
However, following public outcry from the pilots’ widows, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus launched a review and pulled her name from the O-6 selection list in May. Theresa Jones, Landon Jones’ widow, faults the Navy for not protecting her husband and Vavasseur for not slowing down for the few minutes it would have taken to shut down the helo, which was only to be aboard the destroyer long enough to deliver flu vaccines and pick up crewmembers.