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Military confronts hot-dogging

Associated Press
Published May 9, 2005

WASHINGTON - 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 and flew forward into the cockpit, jamming the controls.

In the horrific, tumbling crash that followed, crew chief Daniel Lee Galvan, 30, 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.

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.

"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 he 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, a retired Marine Corps judge says.

"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."

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 flies unsafely.

"There will be repercussions," said the head of Army aviation, Brig. Gen. E.J. Sinclair. "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.

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.

Rogers, a veteran pilot with a reputation in the 25th Infantry Division as an able flier, would not talk about the accident. He said his lawyer also would not comment.

[Last modified May 9, 2005, 01:54:14]

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