June 5, 2014:
The U.S. Navy recently (in May) completed its investigation of an incident in the Red Sea last September where a recently landed helicopter was washed off the destroyer before it could be tied down. The destroyer (the William P. Lawrence, DDG 110) was moving a high speed (over 55 kilometers an hour) through rough seas to rendezvous with a carrier task force. The ship was moving through some rough seas and after the helicopter landed the ship was rolling up to 12 degrees and then encountered a “wall of water” that broke over the helicopter platform and sent the helicopter and five sailors overboard. Three of those who went into the water were rescued but the two pilots were not.
The investigation panel was split on whether the captain (a 20 year veteran) was negligent. The surface warfare officers (SWOs, who run ships) believed the destroyer captain was justified in continuing to move at high speed to make its rendezvous schedule. The aviation officers believed that the captain should have slowed down after the helicopter landed so that the aircraft could be tied down and the aviation personnel could get off the deck. The SWOs pointed out that the DDG 110 captain was maneuvering the ship within the rules for operating in rough seas and it would be unreasonable to expect SWOs to slow down every time they got a helicopter on board in rough weather because of the chance that a large wave might wash over the flight deck before the helicopter could be secured.
The captain of the DDG 110 left her post on schedule at the end of 2013 and went on to her next assignment (a staff position). While the aviation officers faulted the captain for the incident, the majority of officers on the investigation panel did not and no disciplinary action was taken against the captain. The navy does not train captains for such extreme situations, in large part because such incidents are so rare. The aviation community, especially helicopters who operate off destroyers and frigates take a more personal interest in operating off these small ships in bad weather.