Offering Aviation History & Adventure First-Hand!

In the Line of Duty... 
In the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Texas
July 13, 1994

Safety on the High Seas...

In 2008, the United States Coast Guard, in the performance of one of its key missions – Marine Safety Enforcement - conducted more than 70,000 commercial inspections of U.S flagged vessels, performed more than 12,000 safety and environmental examinations of foreign vessels entering U.S. ports, conducted nearly 4,700 marine casualty investigations, and boarded nearly 3,700 underway fishing vessels to perform safety and compliance checks.

A typical vessel safety check involves inspection of the ship's hull to ensure its seaworthiness, and inspections of the vessel's main and auxiliary power, the boilers, electrical and navigation systems, lifesaving equipment, firefighting devices, and a check to see if the vessel is maintaining pollution prevention standards.

Mohammed to the Mountain...

Many of these inspections occur out in the open ocean, while the vessels are underway. As a result, inspectors and other marine safety personnel are required to be transported to said vessels – often via smaller boats or, on rare occasions, via helicopter.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 13th, 1994, civilian helicopter pilot Tony Loague, 46, an employee of Sea-Link, preflighted his company's Aerospatiale AS-350B1 “Ecureuil”, registered as N350WM and leased to Sea-Link Helicopters by Aerospatiale, and took off from the Houston Gulf Airport in Houston, Texas, shortly before 8 AM.

Loague was an experienced pilot, having flown as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy from 1971-1977, served as chief pilot in Galveston for Evergreen Helicopter Inc. in 1985, and flown air ambulance flights in Virginia and North Carolina in the late 1980s.

Arriving at the Galveston Aero Flight Center at Scholes Field, it picked up four passengers as part of an air taxi flight: marine electronics technician Richard Gould, 33, of Webster, Texas; marine chemist Peter W. Wiggins, 49, of Texas City; and two Coast Guard inspectors from the Marine Safety Office in Galveston — Senior Chief Boatswains' Mate James A. Pavani, and Chief Marine Science Technician Charles R. Blome, Jr.

BMCS James A. Pavani, 39, of San Francisco, had been in the Coast Guard for 22 years, the Coast Guard, working on marine rescues aboard several cutters like the USCG Cutter Campbell and the USCG Cutter Courageous. Married with a son and daughter, Pavini was due to receive a commendation for his work in developing a policy on alcohol.

MSTC Charles R. Blome Jr., 34, of Billings, Montana, was said to have “written the book on marine inspections.” He had taken initiative, and began drafting inspection guidelines before the law required the Coast Guard perform them, and regularly volunteered to go on inspections. With 15 years in the service, including four with the U.S. Army, he arrived in Galveston in the summer of 1992. Also married with a son and daughter, Blome was a keen cyclist and the coach for his son's Little League team.

All Aboard...

As one of the passengers had never flown with Sea Link, a full passenger safety briefing was given to all aboard. Fastening their seat belts, the aircraft departed from Scholes Field at about 8:30, bound for an oil tanker 50 nautical miles southeast of Galveston.

However, several minutes into the flight, Loague recalled that as the helicopter was climbing through "2,000 feet when a bump similar to turbulence was felt. Another bump was felt, followed by a more pronounced bump, and then aircraft control was lost."

Loague further recalled that, before the helicopter hit the water, it recovered to an almost level attitude, but in a right skidding turn with the nose slightly down. At no time did the helo's airspeed drop below 70 or 80 knots.

The pilot added that the cyclic felt like it was disconnected, but not loose, and that both the cyclic and collective were unresponsive. Loague also stated that he flew with no friction on the cyclic and minimal on the collective. He had no warning to the impending mishap, as the engine appeared to be running normal, and no warning lights lit up to signal a potential problem.

In an Instant...

Loague told investigators that he estimated that it took 30 to 40 seconds from the first bump to water impact – some 11 miles off the coast of Texas in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

A fisherman in a nearby sport fishing boat, named the “Total Recapp” and captained by Phillip Nunn, helped rescue Loague from the water, and noticed that crew members on over a dozen shrimp boats ignored victims as they worked nearby. Also discovered shortly after the crash was the body of Gould, which was recovered by the sport fishing boat “Symphonie I,” which was captained by Galveston County Commissioner Eddie Barr.

Both were rushed to the University of Texas Medical Branch's John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. However, Gould was pronounced dead on arrival.

The following day, the USS Dextrous (MCM-13) - a Navy minesweeper - and the NOAAS Heck, a Rude-class hydrographic survey ship belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were enroute from the Corpus Christi area to join the search for the helicopter's wreckage and the three missing, and a Navy P-3 Orion aircraft used to detect submarines also took part. However, only a small amount of debris has been recovered from the water on the first day, according to a Coast Guard spokesman.

The Ocean Gives Up Her Dead...

But on the afternoon of Friday, July 15th, the shrimp fishing boat “Tee II”, found the body of Blome about 10 miles south of the Galveston jetties.

On Sunday, June 17th, a fishing boat found, in the Gulf off Rollover Pass near Gilchrist, part of a wheel assembly and a piece of fiberglass with a window in it that was thought to be part of the helicopter wreckage, a report from the Coast Guard stated. At the same time, a Coast Guard airplane and a 41-foot boat searched the water, and personnel from the Coast Guard Station at Sabine checked the beaches along the Bolivar Peninsula. The next afternoon, the body of Pavini was found by a Coast Guard search helicopter, as well as a section of the helicopter's tail rotor.

On July 19th, 1994, Congressman Gerry Studds of Massachusetts recognized the sacrifices of the two Coast Guardsmen lost aboard N350WM, as well as four Coast Guardsmen whom perished off the coast of northern California a day prior to the Texas mishap. “These tragic accidents shock and sadden us. Every day, the highly trained men and women of the Coast Guard put their lives on the line to save others. They know there are dangers attendant to their work, but, their work is a passion: to serve their country; to ensure the safety of those who go to sea; to enforce the maritime laws of this Nation. Today, we mourn the tragic loss of these young men and send our condolences and prayers to their families. We will always remember their supreme personal sacrifices and their heroic deeds.”

That same day, a memorial service for the Pavani and Blome was held at at Moody Memorial United Methodist Church in Galveston. Commander Dean Kutz of the Marine Safety Office in Galveston said he remembered Pavini as a likable veteran and Blome as an ambitious chief petty officer.

Two weeks after the crash, on July 27th, the Coast Guard and other agencies suspended the search for Peter Wiggins. But on the afternoon of August 8th, the body of Peter Wiggins was found by the shrimp boat, “Martin,” about ten miles off the coast, and less than a mile from the crash site. At almost the same time, the vessel's drag net became snagged on an object on the seafloor. At 5 that afternoon., a Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team at the scene recovered a door that matched previously recovered fragments of the helicopter.

Rebuilding the Broken...

The National Transportation Safety Board managed to have all major components, except the vertical fin and tail rotor gearbox, recovered from the 55-foot deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico by volunteer divers and a professional salvage team.

During a reconstruction of the helicopter, the left lateral servo rod end was found disconnected from the servo extension. The threads on the rod end were intact and appeared undamaged; however, only remnants of the mating internal threads in the servo extension remained. Almost the entire thread profile was worn away leaving only the threaded area that had been located within the keyway slot of the rod end. The zero-time servo, meaning it had been overhauled to original factory specifications, had been installed 416 flight-hours before the accident. The left lateral servo, which is connected by a push rod to the controls at the main rotor head, changes the attitude of the helicopter by changing the angle of attack of the main rotor blades.

It was determined by laboratory analysis that the fractures of the pitch change rod bearing, pitch change rod, and the push rod, were the result of overstress forces and were not preexisting. The separation of the rod end fitting from the servo extension indicates preexisting long term wearing of the internal extension threads.

The NTSB, in its final report on the accident in October of 1995, determined the probable cause of the accident was the inadequate torquing of the left lateral servo by maintenance personnel, which allowed it to become disconnected from the controls, leading to an in-flight loss of control.

On May 18th, 1995 – Armed Force Day - a stone memorial at the Marine Safety Unit in Galveston was unveiled, honoring Pavini and Blome.

Legal Maneuvers...

In American legal circles, the accident is better remembered for its role in the “Blome versus Aerospatiale Helicopter Corparation” decision. After the mishap, Charles Blome's widow, for her and on behalf of her and Charles' two children, sued the helicopter's manufacturer, owner, leasee, and pilot, among others, over the loss of Charles due to improper maintenance. As part of the lawsuit, it became necessary to establish under which jurisdiction – the state of Texas or the United States at large – the lawsuit should take place and, more importantly, what legal procedures and limitations, in terms of financial damages, should be used. Blome's lawyers contended that Texas state laws applied, and the lawyers for the defendants contended that the crash site was in the federal waters of the United States, the legal standards of the “Death on the High Seas Act” should be used (which denies claims for punitive and nonpecuniary damages), and requested a partial summary judgment on that basis.

Federal District Judge Samuel Kent ruled on April 29th, 1996, that in this case, there was evidence to support both claims as to the location of the wreck site, and that since factual issues will determine which law applies, those factual issues must be determined first, and only a jury could determine the facts. The partial summary judgment was denied.

Through a series of continued legal maneuvers, the federal courts recognized that Presidential Proclamation #5928, signed by President Ronald Reagan on December 27th, 1988, extended the United States territorial sea to from three miles to twelve nautical miles, but concluded, and affirmed on appeal in 1997, that the “Death on the High Seas Act” applied where a death occurred more than nine nautical miles from the Texas coast, beyond state waters but within the U.S. territorial sea (924 F. Supp. 805, 814 (S.D. Texas 1996), affirmed, 114 F.3d 1184 (5th Cir. 1997)), and Blome's death fell under the federal court's admiralty jurisdiction.

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