By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
According to military and NTSB reports, the pilots of Blackwater Flight 61 had arrived in Afghanistan just two weeks before their final flight. They received most of their training in Florida and took an introductory flight tour of Afghanistan before being paired with more experienced pilots for their first few missions.
English, 37, and Hammer, 35, had extensive mountain flying experience in the United States, investigators found, but did not receive any such training in Afghanistan. Each had thousands of flight hours but only about 30 in Afghanistan. Company representatives said that the two pilots requested to fly together that day and that there were few other pilots with more in-country experience.
The plane, a Spanish-made CASA C-212-CC, was scheduled to take off at about 7:40 a.m. for the flight from Bagram Air Base, 35 miles north of Kabul, to Farah, a remote provincial capital 450 miles to the southwest. Neither pilot had flown from Bagram to Farah before, records show.
As the plane taxied toward the runway with its payload of about 400 pounds of illuminated mortar rounds and two soldiers, Lt. Col. Michael McMahon flagged it down and jumped aboard. A helicopter pilot, McMahon was trying to get back to his unit after his original Air Force flight was scrubbed because of a mechanical problem, said his wife, Army Col. Jeannette McMahon, who is one of the relatives suing Presidential.
"You wouldn't think twice about doing something like that. . . . He needed to get back to his unit and tried to make that happen," said Jeannette McMahon, who is also a helicopter pilot.
The plane took off but didn't head on the most direct -- and expected -- path to Farah, investigators wrote in reports. Instead, English and Hammer flew a northerly course that would take them through the Bamian Valley, a decision that would later complicate search and rescue efforts, investigators said.
It is not clear why the decision was made, but NTSB investigators wrote that the pilots were "were behaving unprofessionally and were deliberately flying the nonstandard route low through the valley" for kicks.
Blackwater and Presidential representatives argue that the crew may have taken this route because McMahon wanted to see something along the way or hoped to avoid threats along the standard route.
About 10 minutes into the flight, the cockpit voice recorder began to capture the conversations among Hammer, English and a mechanic, Melvin E. Rowe, a 43-year-old Presidential employee who was helping the pilots navigate.
"I hope I'm going up the right valley," English said.
When someone came to the cockpit from the back of the plane and asked whether they would see a canyon on this route, Rowe said no, adding, "We don't normally go this route."
The pilots continued down the valley, chatting about how to plug CD players into their headsets so they could listen to music as they flew. "I swear to God, they wouldn't pay me if they knew how much fun this was," English said.
As mountains began to rise ahead of the them, the pilots debated how to proceed without climbing above 14,000 feet. The crew members were not wearing oxygen masks, military and NTSB investigators later concluded, which are required above 12,000 feet.
"Let's find a notch over there," English said. "If we have to go to 14,000 for just a second, it won't be too bad."
Soon, however, they realized they were running out of room. "Okay, you guys are gonna make this, right?" Rowe asked.
"Yeah, I'm hopin', " English said.
The voice recorder began to pick up the sound of heavy breathing. "God," English said.
A stall warning horn, which alerts pilots that the wings are losing lift, begins to blare in the cockpit. "Oh, God," English said.
"We're going down," Rowe said.
The plane crashed about 14,000 feet up the face of a snow-covered mountain. McMahon, Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan and the three crew members died on impact, investigators said. Spec. Harley Miller survived for up to nine hours after the crash before succumbing to injuries complicated by the cold and altitude, investigators wrote.The Investigation
Nobody noticed that the plane was missing for eight hours, and it took the military a day to find the crash site because, investigators wrote, rescuers focused along the flight's expected route.
In its investigation of the accident, the military found that Presidential violated its own policies for selecting flight crews by not putting a pilot with more experience in Afghanistan on the plane. The report said the company's training program in Afghanistan was inadequate and criticized the company and the military for not properly tracking contract flights. The report also found that neither the company nor the military had established procedures to quickly locate missing aircraft. Investigators wrote that the military should have done a better job of inspecting and overseeing the work of Presidential in Afghanistan.
Under its contract, Presidential agreed to conduct its flights in accordance with FAA safety regulations, which give the NTSB jurisdiction in overseas accidents if countries request help, board members said.
The NTSB began investigating at the behest of the Afghan government, NTSB officials said.
While agreeing with many of the military's findings, the NTSB faulted Presidential for its "failure to require its flight crews to file and fly a defined route" and its "failure to ensure that flight crews adhered to company policies and FAA and DoD Federal safety regulations."
The NTSB said the FAA and the Defense Department did not provide "adequate oversight" of the company in Afghanistan, and it criticized coordination between the company and military in the delayed search and rescue efforts.
The FAA countered that it was not its "practice to send inspectors into areas of military hostilities," noting that the NTSB did not send an investigator to the country for safety reasons. But the agency said it was working with the defense officials in a "broad-scope" effort to address any potential safety lapses.
Defense officials responded in a letter to the NTSB that Presidential is closely inspecting its own operations. Under a $92 million contract issued by the government to Presidential late last month, government officials will fly on missions to conduct inspections, officials wrote. The Pentagon also stated that Presidential has improved its ability to track flights and find them if they crash.
In determining which of three bidders would be given the new contract, the Presidential crash was considered, military officials said. One official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said: "We looked at their flight record. They had one accident. You as a consumer don't cancel your flight with American Airlines, for example, because they have one crash. I don't think we'd do that here."
Presidential filed two lengthy petitions with the NTSB that argued that the board relied too heavily on the military investigation to reach its conclusions.
It, too, noted that the NTSB sent no experts to inspect the plane's wreckage or interview people in Afghanistan about what happened, raising questions about how the NTSB expects anyone to uphold civil air safety standards in a war zone.
"The bulk of the so-called investigative work that the NTSB conducted was listening to the [cockpit voice recorder] and reading through the Army's collateral board investigation," Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director who is a consultant for Presidential, said in an interview.
The company also said the board doesn't have jurisdiction to investigate the crash because it does not have the authority to probe military accidents. "Clearly, this was a military mission, and it was flying military personnel and equipment to and from military bases under the direct operational control of the military," Goelz said. "The NTSB is not authorized to expend taxpayer dollars to investigate a military accident."
Members of the safety board disputed those assertions. "We are obligated to take a look at things like this," said Mark V. Rosenker, the board's chairman. "When six people die, we need to understand why that happened."
Presidential has made similar arguments in federal court. The families of the three soldiers allege that the carrier was negligent in the operation of the flight. Their attorney, Bob Spohrer, acknowledged that they would have little luck pressing such a case against the military, which is generally immune from such lawsuits.
Spohrer, the judge in the case and Presidential's representatives have all noted in court filings or interviews that the Pentagon has not backed the carrier's contention that it is essentially an arm of the government. That complicates Presidential's -- and, by extension, Blackwater's -- efforts to avoid litigation, legal experts and the company's representatives said.
"In my opinion, the military wants it both ways," Goelz said. "On the one hand, they absolutely are reliant, in this case, on . . . Presidential Airways. They couldn't reasonably resupply forward fire bases in Afghanistan without this contract service. On the other hand, they do not want to share responsibility of the operations."
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.