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A deadly helicopter accident and the debate on military readiness
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada (CNN) -- On a warm September night at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, a pair of helicopters from Rescue Squadron 66 took off for a three-hour training exercise, to practice finding and recovering a downed pilot.
It was a mission like this two years ago that killed 12 men when their HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters collided at night over a desert training range north of Las Vegas and burned for hours on the ground before they were located north of the city.
"The Air Force by its nature is a dangerous job," Capt. Bill Sullivan, the first pilot and chief of scheduling. "Flying helicopters at night, at 100 feet, on goggles, low illumination is a dangerous job. It's always going to be that way."
A six-month Air Force investigation determined the cause to be pilot error, but the nearly two-foot thick accident report detailed something more troubling, citing problems with "operations tempo, training and leadership."
Unit stressed out by constant deployments
Under guidelines drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, high demand units -- like Rescue Squadron 66 --are supposed to be on combat footing for no more than 60 days at a time.
At the time of the accident, Rescue Squadron 66 had been on combat footing for five years.
It was a squadron "on a path to disaster," in the words of a lead Air Force investigator.
"I was shocked," said retired Air Force Capt. Amy Dreifus. "This seemed to be a preventable mishap."
Dreifus was among the military investigators who put together the Air Force report that detailed alarming deficiencies in the 66th Rescue Squadron. Now retired, she is a Clark County public defender in Las Vegas.
"We found that this unit was very stressed-out. We found that this unit was deploying all the time. We found that this unit did not have adequate time to do proper training. We found that people were just generally stressed-out just trying to get the job done," said Dreifus.
There was no rest for the weary. Instead of training, the rescue crews spent much of 1998 on high alert in Kuwait and Turkey in case any U.S. pilots went down while patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq.
Better, but not fixed
By the time of the accident, the once-proud squadron's safety and operational procedures had broken down, according to investigators. The accident report called it "serious burnout followed by complete resignation."
On the night of the accident, according to the investigation, one helicopter crew included "a new instructor pilot, a weak co-pilot and an unqualified gunner." As near as can be determined, that crew's helicopter struck the other from below during demanding evasive maneuvers.
The loss of the 12 airmen is not far from the mind of Air Force helicopter instructor pilot Capt. Joe Baumgarte as he briefs crews about to conduct the same demanding type of exercise two years later.
The unit is no longer on a war footing, largely because officials say the crash forced the Air Force to find other units to pick up some of the workload. But many of the underlying problems remain.
"It's better but it's still not fixed. We're still in desperate need of instructor pilots and our instructor pilots still do fly a great deal. But we're better than we were before but we still need to get more people through the training pipeline."
"I think the deployments have slowed down a little bit," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Swift. "Do I still think they take a little toll? Yes sir, I do."
Did the best with hand they were dealt
As if to underscore the point, one of the squadron's helicopters was destroyed in December, when it rolled over after a hard landing in Kuwait. The crew escaped harm. Accident investigators blamed pilot error, but also cited the inexperience of the crew:
"Did we miss something from last time and the answer is 'no.' The instructions are good. The procedures are right. The pilot just failed to follow the right procedure," said Lt. Col. Joe Callahan, commander of the 66th Rescue Squadron.
Callahan decides who flies on which helicopter. He's been in charge for eight months and insists that the bad crew mix that contributed to the 1998 accident was a mistake that will not be repeated.
"Part of it is lessons learned. The mishap two years ago -- it's not something you just forget after a year, two years or even a decade. It's something that's going to stay with us forever," said Callahan.
"The experience level of the force has increased also. So the idea of being forced to send out one experienced crew member and three inexperienced ones to go do a mission has diminished," he said.
What happened to this squadron could be seen as a cautionary tale about what can go wrong if the U.S. military is asked to do much with too little. Air Force investigators concluded the men women of the 66th Rescue Squadron did the best they could given the hand they were dealt.
John Youngblood's brother Karl was the highly rated pilot of the helicopter that was hit, by the less experienced crew. His main concern is accountability.
"I would like the Air Force to take responsibility and admit that they are wrong, admit that there were screw-ups in the system, admit that there are problems that need taken care of and do something about it," said John Youngblood.
Despite the damning report, no Air Force commander was disciplined for the breakdown in leadership, although last year, one colonel was denied a promotion to wing commander.
Military caught in political crossfire
In this election year, the tragedy has taken on political overtones, with some Republicans arguing the memorial honoring the fallen airmen is also a monument to a failed policy that has overworked and under-funded the U.S. armed forces.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush called for an overhaul of the military to eradicate what he said were problems of over-deployment, poor pay, low morale and a declining readiness.
"The current administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation. The next president will inherit a military in decline," Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush told the American Legion's National Convention on Wednesday.
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has maintained the United States has the best-trained, best-equipped military in the world and that morale remains high.
The Pentagon admits it had serious readiness problems two years ago, especially among high-demand units like the combat rescue helicopter squadron at Nellis AFB, but it insists an infusion of funds and a reordering of priorities has put those units back on track.
One Defense Department official said the report could be read from opposing political angles. "This is one of those situations where the Gore (campaign) can say the glass is half full and the Bush (campaign) can say the glass is half empty."
Reuters contributed to this report.
Pentagon report finds 'most' forces ready, cites potential shortages
Nellis Air Force Base, NV
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