November 01, 2004
Marines fire 5 helo leaders
Wing commander says accident rate forced him to take ‘serious measures’
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer
The squadron commander had a hint that his job was on the line, but the rest of his top staff members probably never saw it coming.
There had been a handful of accidents since he assumed command, but he hadn’t been responsible for the loss of any Marines or equipment.
However, as the commander of a light attack helicopter squadron at war in Iraq — at a time when Marine aviation is in the early stages of one of the most intense safety crackdowns in recent history — those mishaps proved to be more than one squadron could bear.
After the fifth accident in 11 months, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing commander had seen enough. Maj. Gen. Keith J. Stalder fired both the commanding and executive officers of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367.
Relieved were Lt. Col. Bradley L. Lowe and Lt. Col. Nathan S. Cook, who had pinned on his silver oak leaves the day before. Both were immediately shipped home to Camp Pendleton, Calif. Stalder also ordered the reassignment of the squadron’s operations officer, ;safety officer; and maintenance chief. ;
“Making a decision like this one is very difficult, but serious measures need to be taken,” Stalder said in a written response to questions. “When we lose aircraft and people in mishaps, we are doing the work of the enemy.
“The squadron has performed combat missions well, but the rate at which it was losing aircraft and personnel from mishaps is unacceptable.”
But information provided by Lowe and official records contradict Stalder’s assertion about HMLA-367’s accidents.
A 3rd wing spokesman later clarified Stalder’s statement, saying the reference to lost personnel was in regard to the entire wing.
“I did the best I could with the assets I had and the guidance that was given,” Lowe said in a written response to questions. “I have all of my aircraft and no one has been hurt on my watch. I have no regrets.”
New pressure on leaders
The rash of firings and reassignments is the first known example of squadron leaders paying such a stiff penalty for mistakes in their squadron — an outgrowth of new and intense pressure on aviation leaders to stem the tide of deadly accidents and downed aircraft. In fiscal 2004, the worst for Marine aviation in 13 years, the Corps lost 19 aircraft and 15 Marines — most during noncombat training flights. Lt. Gen. Mike Hough, the deputy commandant for aviation, vowed this summer to hold leadership accountable and called on his wing commanders to follow through.
But some aviators think the unprecedented move to fire five squadron leaders smacks of overkill — an overreaction to pressures from the commandant and his deputy for aviation. Some also wonder whether Stalder’s housecleaning could chill other commanders’ war-fighting zeal, spurring them to focus more on safety than on mission accomplishment.
But others say HMLA-367 was in a safety tailspin — that the leadership had not broken the trend and that wiping the slate clean was the only thing to do.
Among Marines, the squadron commander is responsible for everything that happens — good or bad — on his watch. And the five accidents HMLA-367 recorded over 11 months didn’t reflect well on Lowe.
Two were Class A accidents, having caused more than $1 million in damage. Three were Class C accidents, having caused between $20,000 and $200,000 in damage.
But an examination of the accident records and statements from squadron members and the commander cast doubt on whether some of the accidents Stalder pinned on Lowe were Lowe’s responsibility.
“I believe that there was some confusion in the numbers and severity of HMLA-367’s mishap record during my command,” Lowe wrote. “Did we have some opening-day jitters? Sure.”
Officials with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing blame Lowe for the two Class A mishaps: the Oct. 22, 2003, crash of a UH-1N Huey at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and the Jan. 23 crash of an AH-1W Super Cobra at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
Both aircraft were destroyed, but no Marines were injured. The judge advocate general manual investigation reports on each crash have not been released.
Though Stalder held Lowe responsible for these accidents, the 3rd wing spokesman, Maj. Sean Clements, said neither could be directly tied to Lowe’s command. The October crash occurred nearly a month before Lowe joined HMLA-367; he took command Nov. 20, 2003. And the January crash involved a Super Cobra from his squadron, but it was not flown by pilots under his command.
“However, since it was my aircraft, the accident is officially counted against the squadron,” Lowe wrote.
Lowe deployed to Iraq with 345 personnel but left his aircraft at home. Instead, the Marines of HMLA-367 flew the helicopters left there by a previous squadron, including 18 Super Cobras and nine Hueys.
The executive officer’s accountability for the Class A accidents, too, is questionable. Cook moved to Camp Pendleton in August 2003 and joined HMLA-367 after a brief round of Super Cobra refresher training. It wasn’t clear what billet Cook held upon joining the squadron, but he didn’t become executive officer until February, well after the two Class A mishaps.
The case for holding Lowe and Cook responsible for the Class C accidents is more clear-cut, as all three happened after the two settled into their leadership posts.
But in his written response, Lowe stressed that two of the three came during the squadron’s first month of combat operations after deploying to Iraq in mid-August.
One, involving a Super Cobra, happened during a nighttime mission to support raids conducted by Marines in western Iraq. While checking on a malfunctioning generator box in the cockpit during the Sept. 10 mission, the Cobra pilot temporarily lost control of the aircraft and the helicopter’s tail boom dipped, hitting the waters of the Euphrates River, according to squadron members who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Super Cobra’s tail rotor sustained minor damage and was ready for operations the next day, the squadron members said.
A little more than a week later, on Sept. 18, another of Lowe’s Super Cobras drifted into a parked UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter while taking off after a nighttime refueling stop. The Super Cobra sustained minor damage, but one of the Blackhawk’s rotor blades was damaged and had to be replaced.
“There are few things tougher than operating a helicopter on night-vision goggles and in a dusty desert environment,” Lowe said. “I believe that this has been proven over and over in the past three years since Operation Enduring Freedom commenced.”
The third Class C accident came before the squadron deployed; a Huey made a hard landing during a June 8 training flight at Camp Pendleton. One of the Huey’s skids was bent during the landing, but one squadron Marine said the accident might have been due to faulty metal rather than a hard landing.
Clements, the 3rd’s spokesman, declined a request for further comment from wing leaders to address Lowe’s remarks, or to answer questions regarding the dismissal of the squadron’s senior staff and whether Lowe had been warned of his impending dismissal.
A tough decision
Those who know Lowe say he was a top-notch pilot and they were shocked to find out he was fired.
“He is a very bright, very talented guy,” said Maj. Clayton Bollinger, a Super Cobra pilot who served with Lowe in 1998. “When I heard he’d been fired, I was like, ‘Whoa!’”
Meanwhile, others warn that firing or reassigning five squadron officials for a series of comparatively minor mishaps — especially when two of them happened during the first few weeks of combat operations in a new environment — could prompt other squadron commanders to focus more on safety than on supporting Marines in combat.
Although most didn’t see the housecleaning coming, some pilots in the community said they knew the hammer would drop on someone soon.
“It seems like they’re trying to chop somebody’s head off for the mishaps of the aviation community over the last two or three years,” said 1st Lt. Jesse Hardin, a Cobra pilot with HMLA-367 who is now the officer in charge of the squadron’s stateside detachment. Hardin flew in Iraq as an augmentee with HMLA-775 — a Reserve unit that HMLA-367 replaced in August.
Although Lowe expressed a strong desire that the firings remain discreet, he took full responsibility for his actions and said he understood the pressure Stalder has been under to turn around one of the worst years in Marine Corps aviation safety history.
“Am I disappointed? No. I am personally devastated,” he wrote. “However, it is not what’s best for me, it is what is best for the squadron. I wish the new commander well.”