View Full Version : Cleaning house:5 leaders in 1 squadron fired over high rate of accidents

10-15-04, 06:54 AM
October 18, 2004

Cleaning house
5 leaders in 1 squadron fired over high rate of accidents

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. It was time to clean house.

In what could be called a “decapitation strike,” Maj. Gen. Keith J. Stalder fired both the commanding and executive officers of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367.

It was the 3rd MAW’s deputy commander, Col. Roy Arnold, who did the deed, making the trip to Camp Taqaddum, Iraq, from Al Asad Air Base for a meeting with the two squadron leaders Oct. 2. Arnold relieved the CO, Lt. Col. Bradley L. Lowe, and the XO, Lt. Col. Nathan S. Cook, who had pinned on his silver oak leaves the day before. Both were immediately shipped home to Camp Pendleton.

But Stalder’s bloodletting didn’t stop there. He also ordered the reassignment of the squadron’s operations officer, Maj. Michael S. Cuningham; the safety officer, Maj. Sean P. Mattingly; and the maintenance chief, Master Sgt. Billy F. Dial. ;Stalder termed the move “the only way to break the trend” of accidents within the squadron.

“Making a decision like this one is very difficult, but serious measures need to be taken,” Stalder said Oct. 5 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 MAW spokesman later clarified Stalder’s statement, saying the reference to lost personnel was in regard to the entire wing.

Lowe and Cook were replaced by Lt. Col. Stephen Hall and Maj. Thomas Post, both of HMLA-169. The Corps didn’t say who replaced the other three Marines.

“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 from Marine Corps Times. “I have all of my aircraft and no one has been hurt on my watch. I have no regrets.”

Cook could not be reached for comment.

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 non-combat 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 feel 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.

A question of timing

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 damages. Three were Class C accidents, having caused between $20,000 and $200,000 in damages.

But an examination of the accident records and statements from squadron members and the commander himself 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 3rd MAW 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 MAW 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 XO 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, which involved 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


10-15-04, 06:55 AM
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...