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 sustained only 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 explained. “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 MAW 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 given any warning of his impending dismissal.

After the second accident in Iraq, Marine Aircraft Group 16 commander Col. Guy M. Close traveled to Camp Taqaddum, expressing concern about the two mishaps and telling the squadron to shape up, according to active-duty Marines familiar with the incident.

The crackdown begins

After a one day stand-down in which squadron leaders called for a renewed focus on safety, the squadron returned to its 24/7 pace of combat operations.

“I believe I was an excellent CO to HMLA-367 and I believe you will find that opinion throughout the squadron. I stand by every command decision I have made,” Lowe wrote.

Records from the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., offer perspective on HMLA-367’s safety record during fiscal 2004. Over the course of the year, the Corps suffered a total of 24 Class C accidents. Of those 24, eight involved Hueys or Super Cobras — three of which were under Lowe’s command.

At the same time, the Corps suffered 18 Class A mishaps involving 22 aircraft — many of them during peacetime operations.

Hough, the Corps’ aviation chief, launched the Corpswide aviation safety crackdown in August in reaction to the high number of accidents that occurred during routine training or “administrative” portions of flights, such as returning to base or flying to a range.

“We are killing more aircrew in training mishaps than during combat missions,” Hough wrote late this summer in a message to his commanders. “All aviation commands must support this effort to identify the hazards and implement the necessary controls to manage our risk so we can reverse this mishap trend.”

In an Aug. 26 interview as Corps officials were rolling out details of the crackdown plan, Stalder vowed to hold his squadron commanders accountable for their accidents.

As he recounted the details of a December 2003 crash involving an AV-8B Harrier jet, which he attributed to pilot error stemming from “supervisory gaps,” Stalder said he wouldn’t stop at firing just a squadron commander.

“I told my commanders that if you do something like this, you’re going to be gone, and probably some of the people who work for you are going to be gone.

“I did that ... to make them understand where I come from on the issue of accountability.”

So far, Stalder is the first wing commander known to have made good on his promise to fire a squadron commander and his top staff for safety reasons.

In his Oct. 5 statement about the HMLA-367 firings, Stalder said the moves were intended to address a “trend” in the squadron that Lowe had failed to stop.

A tough decision

It is not clear whether the mass firing at HMLA-367 will have a chilling effect on other squadrons. Those who know Lowe say he was a top-notch pilot and that they were shocked to find out he was fired, voicing skepticism about the circumstances that led up to the firing.

“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, pilots in the community 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 with HMLA-775 — a Reserve unit that HMLA-367 replaced in August — as an augmentee.

“Somebody’s head was going to go on the chopping block and it was a matter of time.”

Even veteran pilots see Stalder’s move as drastic, especially his decision to fire not just the CO, but also the XO, while reassigning the operations officer, safety officer and maintenance chief.

Even though they grudgingly concede that Lowe should be held accountable for the record of the squadron, tossing out the others was over the top.

“Historically, you relieve the [commander] not because he did anything wrong but because you’ve lost confidence in him,” said retired Col. Barry Ford, a Cobra pilot who served with HMLA-367 during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “But by relieving so many … it seems to me to be a massive overkill.”

“The only thing I can think of is it’s to set an example.”

Other veteran aviators spoke of the difficult decisions both squadron leaders and their superiors must make in combat zones.

“It’s absolutely unfortunate for those involved, and my heart goes out to them,” said retired Maj. Gen. William Whitlow, a former assistant wing commander.

Whitlow, a Huey pilot, said he understands commanders in the field face enormous challenges. But he also acknowledged that their senior commanders must hold them responsible if they don’t agree with the choices made in the field.

“They operate in a very harsh and demanding environment and the commanders have to make very difficult and timely decisions that hold Marines’ futures in their hands,” Whitlow said.

“But it’s up to the commanding general to make the decisions he has to make regardless of the type of environment they’re operating in.”

Whitlow added that he knows the senior commanders at 3rd MAW, including Stalder, to be “extremely competent, qualified and absolutely fair” Marine officers.

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.”

Christian Lowe covers Marine Corps aviation issues. He can be reached at (703) 750-8613 or clowe@marinecorpstimes.com.

Staff writer Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.