Officers Face Charges Over Chopper Shootdown
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A U.S. fighter pilot accused of negligent homicide for the downing of two Army helicopters over Iraq disregarded a fellow pilot’s warning to hold fire until he confirmed the choppers’ identity, the Air Force says.
And in a series of blunders, an AWACS radar plane crew failed to tell the pilots the helicopters were American, failed to ensure that the aircraft used the right identification codes and failed to ensure that the entire area was properly monitored, according to Air Force documents.
Twenty-six people were killed in the April 14 shootdown - one of the military’s deadliest ″friendly fire″ episodes.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July there were ″a shocking number of instances where individuals failed to do their jobs properly.″
Still, the number and severity of the charges surprised many in the Pentagon. Officials said they could not recall a similar case of accidental deaths resulting in charges against so many officers.
The Air Force announced Thursday that Lt. Col. Randy W. May, the most senior of two F-15 pilots involved in the incident, was being charged with 26 counts of negligent homicide and two counts of dereliction of duty.
In addition, five officers aboard the Airborne Warning and Control System radar plane that oversaw the action face dereliction of duty charges.
An Air Force statement said May, based with the 53rd Fighter Squadron in Spangdahlem, Germany, ″negligently failed to clearly convey″ to the lead F- 15 pilot that he ″could not confirm the identity of the two suspected Iraqi Hind helicopters″ after being directed by the lead pilot to do so. The aircraft were in fact Army Black Hawk helicopters.
If found guilty of the negligent homicide charges, May could be sent to prison for up to 26 years.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Doug Kennett said May was the squadron commander, but he said he did not know whether May was the pilot who fired first.
No charges was announced against the other F-15 pilot or more-senior officers who were in charge of the operation in northern Iraq. The second pilot has not been identified by the Air Force.
Officials said more charges could be brought.
The Black Hawks were ferrying members of an international group that had been working with the Kurds in northern Iraq since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The dead included 15 Americans, six military officers from Britain, France and Turkey and five Kurds employed by the United States.
The two F-15 pilots patrolling a U.N.-imposed no-fly zone, shot the Black Hawks down one after the other, believing they were Iraqi aircraft.
A Pentagon study suggested that the controllers on board the AWACS radar plane knew the two Black Hawks were in the area but failed to warn the F-15 pilots when they reported that they had sighted the helicopters.
Members of the AWACS crew and their charges:
-Maj. Douglas L. Martin, on board to represent the senior general officer in the region, three counts of dereliction of duty. His duty was to interpret the ″rules of engagement″ in a potentially hostile area.
-Capt. Jim Wang, the senior director of the mission crew, five counts of dereliction of duty. The senior director is in charge of the crew working a certain shift on the radar plane.
-Maj. Lawrence M. Tracey, the mission crew commander, four counts of dereliction of duty. The mission crew commander has overall responsibility for the officers conducting the radar mission on the plane.
-1st Lt. Joseph M. Halcli, an en route controller, four counts of dereliction of duty. An en route controller directs certain aircraft that the AWACS can see, such as the F-15s or the Black Hawks.
-2nd Lt. Ricky L. Wilson, the tactical area of responsibility controller, four counts of dereliction of duty. The tactical area controller finds and then identifies aircraft in a certain portion of the area the AWACS can see.
Martin is based with the Air Combat Command Air Operations Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The other four officers are with the 963rd Airborne Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maximum punishment for negligent homicide is dismissal, forfeiture of pay and allowances and confinement for one year for each charge. The maximum punishment for dereliction of duty is dismissal, forfeiture of two-thirds of pay for three months and confinement for up to three months.
Kennett said the accused officers will face proceedings equivalent to a grand jury, known as an ″Article 32.″ Information from those proceedings will be presented to two senior Air Force generals who will decide whether courts-martial should be held. The process could take months.