Widows Of Killed U.S. Navy Pilots Sue

The widows of two pilots killed when a wave swept their helicopter off a U.S. Navy destroyer filed a lawsuit in San Diego Monday, alleging the Navy and others knew of design flaws in certain Navy ships and their helicopter landing platforms.

The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of Theresa Jones, Christina Gibson and their children, asks a court to declare the ships in question unreasonably dangerous and order that they be changed to prevent future accidents.

On Sept. 22, 2013, Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones and Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Gibson lost their lives when the MH-60S helicopter they had safely landed was struck by a wave that crashed over the flight deck of the USS William P. Lawrence and washed the helicopter into the Red Sea with the two pilots aboard. Their bodies were never recovered.

The USS William P. Lawrence was launched in 2009 as a follow-on modification to the Navy's original Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer and was equipped with what is known as a "low-freeboard" flight deck, according to the plaintiffs. The freeboard is the distance between the waterline and the flight deck.

The sea conditions experienced by the USS William P. Lawrence two years ago were reasonably foreseeable and occurred during normal operating conditions, according to the suit, which alleges the low-freeboard design defect on the destroyer was the cause of the pilots' deaths and utterly preventable.

The Navy and the ship's designers and builders had known of the low- freeboard defect since 1983, according to the suit.

From 1983 until the date of the accident, the Navy's Safety Center reported at least 13 Hazard Reports about waves damaging helicopters and flight deck nets aboard low-freeboard destroyers and frigates, the lawsuit alleges.

Between January 2003 and March 2013, the Navy documented at least nine other mishaps involving waves washing over destroyer flight decks, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs allege "systemic disregard" for the safety of personnel places the culpability for the deaths of Jones and Gibson "squarely on the shoulders of the Navy and the designers and builders of the ships."

The maneuvers of the ship in speed and course exacerbated the already low-freeboard conditions and caused the ship to roll dangerously until it made its final roll of 17 degrees, "causing the deadly wave to crash into the helicopter, destroying it and killing the two pilots," the suit alleges.

Although an initial investigation "found that the captain did not violate any Navy regulations per se" — a finding that was ultimately disagreed with by the highest echelons in the Navy — "it is abundantly clear that her actions contributed to the accident and even more clear that the Navy failed to train its crews to safely maneuver the defective ships with helicopters operating on their decks," the lawsuit states.

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