Commentary: Pentagon asks too much of too few

For Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, military readiness is no longer simply a Washington political debate about money, spare parts, and increased demands on troops. In recent months, the issue for him took on a more human dimension as he investigated why 12 young airmen died in a midair collision. And what he found was that the U.S. Air Force so exhausted one of its helicopter squadrons that the entire unit was an accident waiting to happen.

And tragically, the accident did happen. On the gusty night of Sept. 3, 1998, two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters collided while rehearsing nighttime air-rescue missions over the Nevada desert. The accident killed all 12 airmen aboard the two airships. The Air Force blamed the collision on "operator error," an official finding that Bond has denounced as shallow and self-serving. Bond says the main culprit is the armed services' insistence on making too many demands on too few troops. Bond wants to know the extent of this practicae. And this fourth-ranking Republican on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee intends to keep asking the question until he gets straight answers.

Bond has already discovered that the helicopters' unit--the 66th Rescue Squadron, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada--was plagued by problems, and Air Force higher-ups knew it. Yet military leaders continued to impose a relentless pace on a squadron that was receiving poorly trained new aircrews from its training wing, was burned out from deployments to Kuwait and elsewhere, and was so busy trying to meet readiness standards and the needs of upcoming missions that it was ignoring some of the basics of air safety.

Before the midair collision, the 66th was a microcosm of the stresses imposed on small, specialized units. The Pentagon says that the stresses felt by these units are caused by "low density and high demand." The Air Force has only four air-rescue squadrons whose chief job is to rescue downed pilots, and these squadrons must deploy whenever Air Force fliers are patrolling over the Balkans, Iraq, or other global hot spots. As a result, air-rescue squadrons are constantly in demand. The 66th faced not only constant deployment, according to squadron officers, but also endured poor squadron, group, and wing leadership in the months leading up to the midair collision.

About every three months, members of the 66th said, approximately half the squadron would fly to bases near Iraq and Turkey to stand ready to rescue any pilots who might eject from their aircraft while patrolling the Northern Watch and Southern Watch no-fly zones. The frequent deployments derailed the at-home training of junior airmen and pilots and forced the command to take shortcuts in turning out co-pilots. Those shortcuts elevated the potential for accidents caused by inexperience. The number of experienced pilots assigned to the squadron was so small that the pilots had to be deployed again and again to fly the top-priority missions. The workload dispirited them and prompted some to quit the Air Force, and their departures further widened the 66th's experience gap.

"Flag officers are supposed to be looking out for their people," Bond told National Journal. "What I'm concerned about is that this may be the tip of the iceberg," he said of the 66th. Is the can-do ethic of the brass in all the services endangering more lives? he asked.

The Senator said he was "stunned" to learn that Air Force leaders had ignored written warnings, which were funneled up the chain of command, that the squadron was ragged and burned-out. Indeed, Air Force leaders, slavishly adhering to the military's often admirable can-do attitude, kept giving the squadron more dangerous work, including the repeated practice of air-rescue missions. Worse, the Air Force not only failed to hold any of the brass accountable for the conditions that caused the 1998 crash, but Air Force leaders chose the 66th's operations group commander for a prime assignment (he has since been "de-selected") and promoted the then-overseeing wing commander from brigadier general to major general.

Bond, a father himself, cannot believe that anyone-in the military or out of it-could read the testimony of military families, or official Air Force reports before and after the crash, without concluding that there is a desperate need for accountability at the top of today's military. Bond cites as an example the testimony of Laurel Lewis, the widow of Capt. Gregg Lewis, one of the pilots killed in the crash and blamed by the Air Force for "operator error."

"It angers me that 12 people had to die in order for someone to look at the problems occurring in the 66th," Lewis told the 10-member Accident Investigation Board six weeks after the crash. "What I don't understand is why it has taken the death of my husband to peak the interest of this Air Force, which is supposed to be taking care of its own. Why was no questioning done of the staff regarding problems with flying, training, deployments?"

Lewis outlined how her husband faulted the training commands-specifically, the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.-for sending new aircrews that were so ill-prepared, his squadron was having to spend many hours in the air bringing the new crews up to speed.

"He felt like the people who were doing the training were not doing a good job, and the rest of the squadron was suffering from it."

She described how their marriage was hurting because of the demands placed on him by the Air Force. He was once sent to Kuwait on three days' notice and remained there for 20 weeks, during which time Lewis and his wife spoke to each other less than a half hour each week. In fact, Lewis had decided to leave the service.

"We were getting out of the Air Force," she said. "Gregg was the most deployed pilot in the squadron since we got here. He had a parking spot after he made best company-grade officer, but didn't get to park in it because he was deployed.

"I have lost not only my best friend, but my husband and confidant. I have lost my support and my greatest strength here on earth.... We were `Team Lewis,' in his words. And we always sucked it up for the greater good, and then licked each other's wounds later-in private, in the quiet of our home.... We had gotten tired of sucking it up. As much as Gregg enjoyed flying, he loved being married more.

"The things that need to be changed in the Air Force are much bigger than the 66th," she continued.

"Intelligent, caring, patient, kind, thoughtful, intuitive, nurturing, professional men like my husband are leaving the Air Force because they are being mistreated. My husband lost his life, and still people in the 66th remain unchanged. That hurts more than you will ever know. It's someone picking at the pieces of my broken heart."

Col. Larry New, the operations group commander of the 57th Wing at the time of the crash, may not have heard the warnings about pilot burnout from Mrs. Lewis and other wives before the accident. But squadron members say that he should have heeded the alarms about the 66th, sounded seven months before the accident, from the Air Force's Safety Center at Kirtland. The center reported: "Distraction; multiple deployments; limited training opportunities; young, inexperienced crews; issues involving initial qualification and requalification training, and fatigue/burnout are all factors that may have a negative impact on the overall safety level of the squadron." Despite that warning, New and other Air Force leaders kept up the squadron's fast pace.

Air Force Col. Denver L. Pletcher, who presided over the Accident Investigations Board, was as mystified as Bond at why none of the 66th's overseers realized that the squadron was dangerously, if not fatally, sick. In words that the Air Force's top brass found hard to swallow and that galvanized Bond, Pletcher wrote:

"I believe the effects of a high [operations and personnel] tempo coupled with leadership problems, internal and external training deficiencies, broken squadron processes, low aircrew experience level, and midlevel supervisory breakdown all put this aircrew at risk.

"The high ops tempo had a cumulative negative effect on the squadron. The entire squadron was running so hard trying to prepare for the next deployment, trying to ensure all aircrew members were current and qualified, that they lost sight/situational awareness regarding training and safety of flight. Common sense did not prevail. They had little or no control over the situation. No matter what happened, they were determined to meet their commitment.

"It would be very easy to say that this accident was simply pilot error and poor management at the squadron operational level," the colonel said. "However, if you review the facts outlined in both supporting documentation and testimony, it is my opinion that this squadron was on a path to disaster. The men and women of the 66th were doing the best they could, given the hand they were dealt."

Brig. Gen. Michael N. Farage, in reviewing those harsh findings this year for Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of the Air Force Air Combat Command, wrote that Pletcher's "opinion that leadership may have contributed to the accident is a valid one."

Bond sounded more sad than angry as he talked about the tragedy and the lack of accountability. He does not believe that new laws and congressional hearings are the answers to what he regards as a kind of institutional deafness at the top of today's military. It is not right to "blame only the four dead guys" who were flying the two helicopters, Bond said. Accountability should go above them, he continued, after an inquiry into why the system broke down and "what needs to be done about it in the Air Force and other branches. We can't do that in Congress. That's got to be within the military."

Amen to that.

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