A Crash's Echoes, From War Zone to Washington
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
A twin-engine cargo plane carrying three U.S. soldiers and a crew of three was weaving through the mountains of Afghanistan on a crystal-clear day in November 2004.
The pilots were enjoying the view of the snow-covered ridges and verdant valleys on what was scheduled to be a 2 hour, 25 minute flight. "With this good visibility . . . it's as easy as pie," said pilot Noel English, his words captured by the cockpit voice recorder just 20 minutes before the plane slammed into a mountain, killing all six men aboard.
English and his co-pilot, Loren Hammer, both new to Afghanistan, had taken an unexpected route and flown into a box canyon. Before they could turn around, they ran out of room.
The accident soon began to draw attention to the flight crew's employer, Presidential Airways. The families of the dead soldiers sued Presidential. The military conducted an investigation that criticized the carrier for a variety of problems. And the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in with a report last year, faulting the pilots and poor oversight of flight operations by Presidential, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department.
The probes and proceedings focused on Presidential have also drawn attention to its parent company, Prince Group, and to Prince's better-known subsidiary, Blackwater Worldwide, one of the largest private security contractors operating in Iraq.
As Blackwater and other contractors come under close scrutiny for their actions in war zones, the crash of the Presidential flight -- known as Blackwater Flight 61 -- still raises many of the same unanswered questions about oversight, responsibility, and coordination between authorities and contractors that are now being asked in connection with Blackwater's record in Iraq.
Kathryn O'Leary Higgins, an NTSB member, said the crash highlighted how contractors "fall between the cracks."
"That is troubling to me," she said. "Who are they accountable to? There is no accountability in terms of government oversight. They were contracted with the Defense Department -- that is who was paying them -- but they were a civilian operation with a certificate from the FAA. So, the question is, who can hold them accountable?"
Presidential is battling the NTSB over its findings, in part by challenging the board's jurisdiction, in an attempt to blunt their impact in legal proceedings, particularly the lawsuit filed by the families of the crash victims. The firm's legal efforts were set back this month when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Miami rejected the carrier's attempt to have the crash lawsuit thrown out of court.
If the company loses the case, contractors could face an avalanche of litigation that could cut into their robust profits, legal experts said.
"If they lose a lawsuit, that is going to open the floodgates," said Scott L. Silliman, a law professor at Duke University who has tracked other suits against contractors. "Once the military contractors appear vulnerable to litigation, the suits are going to come from all over the place."
'We're Going Down'
The crash occurred about 8:20 a.m. on Nov. 27, two months after Presidential won a $35 million contract to ferry U.S. troops and supplies to austere airfields in Afghanistan. The carrier relied on planes -- like the one that crashed -- that can take off and land in short distances and in high elevations. The military did not have enough such aircraft to conduct these missions itself, officials have said.