Skimming low over hills in eastern Afghanistan, the 11 Marines packed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter asked for an exciting flight on an otherwise dull mission, demonstrating for visiting dignitaries how troops are sped into battle.
“Fly hard,” the Marines asked. The cockpit responded, “You asked for it.”
Climbing and swooping, the Black Hawk pilot crested a 400-foot hill then deliberately nosed into a dive so steep and abrupt that everyone inside felt weightless. A wheel chock rose off the floor like a magician’s prop and flew forward into the cockpit, jamming the controls.
In the horrific, tumbling crash that followed, a crew chief in the doorway died. Everyone else was injured. The $6 million helicopter was destroyed.
The accident last summer was among the latest in a series of exasperating crashes in the military that was blamed on recklessness, not enemy gunfire or faulty equipment, The Associated Press found.
“Top Gun”-style flying, personified by Tom Cruise as a brash Navy pilot in Hollywood’s 1986 film, presents the Pentagon with a dilemma: How to breed aggressive aviators in high-performance jets and helicopters capable of extraordinary maneuvers without endangering crews, passengers and aircraft.
The pilot in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darrin Raymond Rogers, 37, of Mililani, Hawaii, pleaded guilty last week at his court-martial to charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, property destruction and failure to obey orders.
‘Not a bad person’
“I’m not a bad person,” Rogers told the judge. He acknowledged that he was “trying to impress the guys in the back.” Rogers was sentenced to 120 days without pay at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. He also must retire from the Army, but will retain his pension.
“There’s a difference between aggressiveness and recklessness,” said Richard A. Cody, a four-star general who holds the Army’s No. 2 job. “We want them to be aggressive but also disciplined, so they don’t get themselves in an envelope they can’t get out of.”
Some pilots bristle over challenges to how they fly, says a retired Marine Corps judge.
“Hot-dogging is not necessarily negligent,” says Patrick McLain of Dallas, who presided at courts-martial. “You need a person who’s bold and daring and courageous. It rubs against the grain to have this sort of nitpicking oversight. A very small minority would be in favor of scrupulous adherence to the voluminous rules about flying.”
A retired Marine fighter pilot, Kris Elliott of New Orleans, said: “Anybody who says they haven’t hot-dogged as a pilot probably isn’t being truthful.”
In one case, a Naval Reserve pilot, Cmdr. Kevin Thomas Hagenstad of Marietta, Ga., ejected and survived a crash in rural Tennessee last year that investigators attributed to flying so low that his $40 million fighter jet struck power lines three miles from the Watts Bar nuclear plant.
Hagenstad, who broke his ankle, said he was “not at liberty to discuss this.”
The Navy’s top safety commander, Rear Adm. Dick Brooks, cited “blatant” rules violations by Hagenstad.
Reckless accidents, which happen every year, frustrate senior military commanders because these typically occur during training flights and are considered easily avoidable. Air Force crews are encouraged to announce, “Knock it off,” when a pilot begins to fly unsafely.
“There will be repercussions,” the head of Army aviation, Brigadier General E.J. Sinclair, said in an interview with the AP. “If someone goes out there and does that and it’s observed, I usually hear about it from another pilot.”
At the same time, Sinclair said, the Army is rewriting rules to specify which maneuvers are allowed and teaching pilots aggressive new aerial techniques that push helicopters closer to their engineering design limits.
“We make it very clear, this is not something you go out and do on your own,” Sinclair said.
For training, the Army uses a dramatic cockpit video from the crash of an Apache attack helicopter at Fort Campbell, Ky. It shows the co-pilot yelling, “Yeehaw!” during one maneuver banned as unsafe by the Army.
‘Ye of little faith’
The tape also shows the pilot and co-pilot debating whether they can fly safely between tall trees while traveling nearly 90 miles per hour at 16 feet above ground.
“Think I can make it in between there?” the pilot asks.
“Nope,” the co-pilot answers.
“Oh, ye of little faith. Look how big that is,” the pilot says.
Seconds later, the Apache’s rotors struck a huge limb, shattering one blade as the pilot struggled to land safely. “C’mon, get it under control, Mark!” the co-pilot shouts. Both crew survived. The 1997 accident caused $1 million in damage.
Marine Lt. Gen. Mike Hough complained last summer in a memorandum to his aviation commanders: “We are killing more aircrew in training mishaps than during combat missions. ... I will not tolerate the blatant violations and lack of leadership I am seeing from our aviators.”
Hough’s tough message came weeks before a Hornet fighter crash in Quantico, Va., that the Navy blamed on “unacceptable” flying.
But serious criminal charges such as those against Rogers are unusual. Prosecuting pilots in public deeply divides military aviators, who more commonly face quiet administrative proceedings that include warnings and temporary grounding.
“As long as they don’t embarrass the government or hurt anybody, they’ll typically be counseled and that will be the end of it,” said law professor Michael Noone at Catholic University. The retired Air Force colonel has prosecuted and defended pilots in crash investigations.
Investigators said the helicopter pilot who was court-martialed rejected an earlier request by Marines for acrobatics during the flight. But he agreed to a second request and radioed, “Taking room to maneuver,” after a demonstration for Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of the U.S. European Command, was delayed 10 minutes, according to an Army report. Crew chief Daniel Lee Galvan, 30, died in the crash.
Rogers, a veteran pilot with a reputation in the 25th Infantry Division as an able flier, would not talk about the accident when the AP contacted him at home in Hawaii. He said his lawyer also would not comment.
Question of accountability
Other Army pilots said such requests for acrobatics are common from passengers.
“I’ve been asked that; I always felt like I had to enforce the rules,” said Herb Rodriguez of Clarksville, Tenn., a retired Black Hawk pilot who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in the Somalia deployment in 1993. “I was like a parent.”
On a memorial Web site dedicated to her husband, the widow of Daniel Lee Galvan described her young children’s grief and lying atop her husband’s grave. She said she hoped Rogers “lives with the guilt of taking my beautiful angel away from his family.”
“I just don’t want this pilot to think he can do this again, to hurt anybody else,” Sonya Galvan of Lubbock, Texas, told the AP before the court-martial in Hawaii.
“At some point or another,” she said, “they need to make someone accountable.”