Navy skipper faulted in fatal crash

Helicopter loss, 2 deaths in Red Sea accident blamed on lack of caution
By Jeanette Steele

A Navy investigation released Monday lays some blame on the former skipper of a San Diego destroyer for a September helicopter crash that killed two pilots.

Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur was pushing her ship too hard on a windy day in the Red Sea, leading to a series of sharp rolls and a wall of water crashing onto the flight deck, the U.S. Pacific Fleet report concludes.

The seawater swamped a San Diego-based helicopter that had just landed on the William P. Lawrence. In the space of 10 minutes, the helicopter’s off-balance rotor blades caused the aircraft to break apart, slide loose from its chains and slip overboard.

The bodies of the two people inside, Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Gibson, were not recovered.

Vavasseur’s “actions contributed to the loss of life, loss of an aircraft, and damage to the ship,” according to a letter signed by the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Harry Harris.

“While conducting flight operations, she maneuvered at flank speed (more than 30 knots) and did not fully assess the environmental factors. She unnecessarily assumed increased risk during the helicopter evolution, which was unwarranted given the operational circumstance. …” Harris wrote.

“In this instance, the commanding officer did not exercise the highest degree of judgment, seamanship or prudence.”

However, there was no suggestion of criminal wrongdoing. In fact, others involved in the investigation said the ship’s skipper was operating within guidelines.

Cmdr. Jana Vavasseur— U.S. Navy photo

The Navy took administrative action against her in the form of a counseling letter.

Vavasseur, a 1994 Naval Academy graduate, turned over command of the destroyer on schedule in December. She now works on the staff of the Coronado-based admiral in command of the Navy’s surface ships.

The report says that Vavasseur — who was on the bridge of the William P. Lawrence when the helicopter landed — was trying to follow orders to make “best speed” to meet the aircraft carrier Nimitz in order to relieve another escort ship.

She declined to comment Monday.

The families of Gibson and Jones, who belonged to a North Island Naval Air Station squadron, also chose not to make any remarks.

While the Pacific Fleet commander had harsh words for Vavasseur’s decision making, lower-level officials in the investigation did not fault her and concluded that she had followed procedure.

Noted in the report is the known danger of landing helicopters on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which have only a moderate distance between the water line and the flight deck.

An early version of the report suggests that the Navy look into changing operating procedures or modifying these destroyers – such as adding solid nets to deflect water.

The Pacific Fleet commander ordered a safety “stand down” by May 30 for all helicopter commands, frigates and destroyers to address the dangers of “seawater intrusion” during helicopter operations.

His letter also acknowledges that some might find his judgment “harsh and uncompromising” and that the Navy may not have given Vavasseur — and by extension other ship captains — the proper preparation by teaching the lessons of prior mishaps.

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