Report: Officers could have prevented crash
For The Evening Sun
Evening Sun
Article Launched:11/28/2006 09:57:08 AM EST

Two Marines delivered the 4-inch-thick report, and what it contained hit John E. McColley in the gut:

The helicopter accident that killed his 23-year-old son and nine other U.S. service people Feb. 17 resulted from pilot error and commanders' inadequate supervision, military investigators concluded.

"I personally would have rather had a $10 part fail rather than the command structure," McColley said.

McColley's son, Sgt. Jonathan Eric McColley of Gettysburg, was among eight Marines from a Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 unit who died when two CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters collided mid-air off the coast of Africa.

Two Air Force radio operators also perished when the aircraft plunged into shallow water 30 minutes into a standard training mission.

John McColley struggled for several months to learn how the military punished the officers held responsible for Eric's death.

He's received some answers but believes he might never know them all.

"Why didn't they have a two-star general sitting in here and saying, 'Here's what we're doing to make sure it never happens again'?" John said, sitting in the living room of his white farmhouse on the outskirts of Gettysburg.

The report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and asked the Marines how they responded to investigators' recommendations for discipline and procedural revisions.

The Marines said this month they've made changes to prevent a similar accident.

They increased supervision of all deployed heavy-lift helicopter units, bulked up the unit in Djibouti with more experienced officers and revised flight and mission planning procedures, among other things.

They relieved of command the head of HMH-464, Lt. Col. Jeffrey P. Martinez, because of a "loss of confidence" in his ability to continue as its leader, said Maj. Shawn D. Haney, a spokeswoman for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing based in Cherry Point, N.C.

But the Marines refused to disclose how they punished three other officers.

Haney said only that the Marines took "appropriate administrative action" against Maj. Bartlett Ludlow, who was in charge of the helicopter unit in Djibouti and not on the flight; and the surviving pilots, Capt. Susan E. Craig and 1st Lt. Heath Ruppert.

Administrative action in the military is akin to a personnel matter. Examples

include a letter of reprimand, forfeiture of pay or rank or the stripping of a pilot's wings.

"We do know we have families that want more answers. But at the same time, we want to protect our Marines' right to privacy," Haney said.

Craig sent the McColleys a letter last week saying her and Ruppert's flight orders were revoked - they'll no longer fly in the military, John said.

But Eric had told his parents he would go to jail if his actions on the job resulted in the deaths of Marines.

John thinks they got off easy.

The McColleys still don't know what happened to Ludlow, and John intends to find out.

But he and Susan may have all the answers they're likely to get in the more than 739 public pages of the investigative report.

The findings

Pilot and Lt. Col. Gregory M. Douquet and a team spent seven weeks investigating and discovered that failings of the squadron leadership and a "cascading chain of events" led to the collision.

When Douquet's report arrived on the desk of Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, then commander of Marine Forces Central Command, Sattler signed off on it with this observation:

"The chain of events . . . could have been broken at any place or time," and the crash could have been avoided, he wrote in May.

Investigators said:

the officer in charge, Ludlow, permitted the lead pilot to fly despite the pilot's involvement in four flying mishaps in recent months;

Ludlow overburdened the same pilot with responsibilities at the base because the unit was short on pilots;

Ludlow was responsible for a "stifling command environment" in the unit, discouraging co-pilots from questioning helicopter commanders;

Ludlow and two other officers OK'd the Feb. 17 flight despite an ad hoc flight plan created after the original mission was canceled;

the helicopters didn't communicate with one another during the critical last 15 minutes before the collision.

During an impromptu detour on the training flight, the second helicopter was flying too close to the lead helicopter, which slowed and turned unexpectedly and sharply into the second helicopter's path.

Craig, pilot of the second helicopter, didn't immediately notice because she had glanced down at her controls.

They collided, and both helicopters hit the water.

Nine crew members, including McColley, died instantly or within seconds, according to the military medical examiner. The 10th drowned.

The water was so shallow - 30 feet deep - that a blade from McColley's sunken helicopter protruded from the water's surface.

Craig and her co-pilot, Ruppert, survived. Both declined to be interviewed for this story.

But the survivors' description of what occurred in the hours before the collision, detailed in transcripts of their interviews with investigators, helped recreate the day, along with flight logs and other documents Douquet included in the report.

The flight

Eric called home Feb. 14.

He was in month four of a seven-month, volunteer deployment to Djibouti, where he maintained flight equipment for the helicopter unit.

The mission of the Djibouti task force is to disrupt terrorists in the region.

"He said, 'I'll probably be home early,'" his father recalled.

"He said, 'The phone card's going to die.' And then it did.'"

Three days later, Eric was scheduled as part of a training mission.

The helicopter crews learned their main exercise that Friday had been canceled as the flight leader, Capt. Bryan D. Willard, was climbing into his pilot seat.

They still had other training to do, so beside his copter, Condor 10, Willard briefly discussed what the new route and exercises would be with Craig, the pilot of Condor 11:

Together they'd fly the perimeter of Djibouti, a sparsely populated seaside country roughly the size of Massachusetts, then do exercises at a set of landing zones west of the capital city.

They'd be home in two hours.

"This was, a fairly routine, simple - it should have been a relaxed kind of flight," Craig later told investigators.

The crews could have returned to the ready room to re-brief the new mission, but Willard chose not to.

Shortly after takeoff, Willard radioed Craig with a change of plans.

An upcoming mission would take them to the northern coast near a dirt landing strip called Faga: Did she want to check it out?

Craig said sure.

"We'd all been up there. It wasn't anything really out of the ordinary," she told investigators.

Winds blew lightly, and the visibility was clear.

Eric - in charge of flight equipment - sat at the left crew window behind Craig. He'd earned his flight wings the previous month.

Craig stayed behind Condor 10 and on its right as the helicopters flew over the Faga strip, preparing to circle back and land, she thought.

They began a shallow left-hand turn over the Gulf of Aden.

Craig glanced at her controls momentarily, and co-pilot Ruppert dropped his gaze at about the same time.

Ruppert raised his head to see Condor 10 making a rapid roll to the right - so sharp Ruppert glimpsed the whole circle of Condor 10's rotor ring.

It was slowing down, and Condor 11 was closing fast.

"Oh my goodness," Craig said, looking up.

From behind the pilots, a crewman said, "They're too close."

Craig tried to pull the helicopter away, and for a second, Ruppert thought they'd escaped.

But something hit the back end of the helicopter.

"It felt like they flew right through our aircraft," Ruppert told investigators.

One of Condor 10's main rotor blades struck them, severing the tail rotor.

Both aircraft caught fire, and Condor 11 spun without its tail.

"It was real fast, but it felt like it was in slow motion. And then we hit the water," Ruppert said.

The helicopter sank, and fuel floated to the surface.

Craig and Ruppert swam to shore.

They were cut off from any contact with the tower in Djibouti city. Some locals came along and waited with them until Marines found them four hours later.

Loss of a son

At 6 p.m. near Gettysburg, four hours after rescuers plucked Craig and Ruppert from a craggy beach, John and Susan McColley had the television tuned to FoxNews.

A report said 10 aircrew were missing after two Marine helicopters went down off the Djiboutian coast.

That was it.

John knew there were four Marine helicopters in Djibouti, which narrowed the number of Marines potentially involved to fewer than 100.

Frantic, he e-mailed Eric, but the messages bounced back marked "delivery failure." John assumed it was because of the crash.

Then, they waited.

"He kept saying, 'No news is good news,'" Susan said.

She laid down upstairs, trying to calm her nerves. John checked his inbox every 20 minutes.

At 11:30 p.m., a car door slammed in the driveway.

"And I knew," Susan said.

Eric, a laid-back, free-spirited redhead, had stood 6 feet 4 inches tall. He loved Jimmy Buffett and the Grateful Dead, scuba diving and driving his motorcycle.

He joined the service in 2000 after graduating from Gettysburg Area High School.

Eric wanted to see the world and meet people. But he always came home to visit his parents on leave and call on the mechanical bull at the local watering hole.

Nineteen red-tipped pins on a laminated map in his parents' kitchen tracked Eric's travels: Places such as California, Japan, Iraq and Djibouti.

He would have joined the military police upon his return to the states in April.

On Oct. 17, the McColleys marked the one-year anniversary of the last time they saw Eric alive.

They had visited him in Jacksonville, N.C., before his departure to Africa.

Now they visit his grave in Quantico, Va., once every two to three weeks.

Investigators could draw no conclusions as to why Condor 10 rolled unexpectedly to the right. The helicopters weren't fitted with cockpit voice recorders.

Douquet speculated that whoever was flying thought Condor 11 was on his left.

No one can be sure.

But as the pilot in command, Willard should have ensured a complete flight plan of such detail that every pilot and crew member on the training mission had a complete understanding of what was supposed to happen that day.

Investigators said he didn't.

Willard, a native of Enola, Cumberland County, also should not have added the unplanned reconnaissance flight to Faga after takeoff, the military said.

The military said Craig and Ruppert didn't fly in formation as they were trained to and flew too close to Condor 10.

Craig should have flown both behind and several degrees above the lead copter, staying at least 500 feet away.

When she saw how close she was to Condor 10, Craig instinctively turned right to get away.

But Craig should have leveled the craft and increased her speed, according to established procedure.

Investigators recommended Craig lose her wings.

She now has a non-flying job with the Marines in Quantico, according to a spokeswoman at the base.

Investigators recommended Ruppert lose his wings.

Ruppert should've spoken up at Willard's change of plans and should have better assisted Craig when they encountered the situation at Faga, Douquet said.

The military criticized supervisory errors by Ludlow and Martinez, the squadron leader in Jacksonville, N.C.:

Marc Charisse 11/27/06 Ludlow "habitually berated rather than mentored Captain Willard and the (co-pilots) as opposed to constructively contributing to their professional development."

Martinez should have ensured that Ludlow had a system for evaluating morale. Ludlow did not.

Shannon Willard, Bryan Willard's widow, said her husband had often complained in e-mails about the work environment Ludlow created in Djibouti.

Compared with his two deployments to Iraq, Bryan told her, conditions in Djibouti were much better.

"They weren't getting shot at," Willard said by phone from Atlanta, where she lives.

"Still, it was his most unhappy deployment, and it was very much due to the command over there."

Shannon Willard, the McColleys and family members of others who died said they wanted to see Ludlow serve time in a military brig.

But the case didn't warrant any criminal charges because no one intended for the accident to occur, Haney said.

Peg Fordyce, the mother of Sgt. James F. Fordyce, who died in the crash, said she and her husband took their questions and grievances all the way to the commandant of the Marine Corps in September.

Even he wouldn't provide all the answers they sought, she said.

"It's just so frustrating because you get up against the stone wall," said Fordyce, who lives in Newtown Square, Delaware County.

Moving on

The Marines pride themselves on the support and attention they provide their Marine families.

They were helpful in the wake of the accident overall, John McColley said, but failed when it came to two things: Making sure the families didn't learn of the accident on the news and following up on the investigative report.

Even getting some answers now about policy changes by the military had little effect on him.

"It's past that point," McColley said. "We've gotten over that hurdle of the report. I could have five officers walk in here tomorrow, but what good's it going to do?"

He and Susan are closing down their business, American Resin Casting, on Route 30 northwest of Gettysburg.

A Coldwell Banker sign by the road advertises for sale their green-trimmed home and white barn on 5.6 acres in Straban Township.

As they prepare for a move to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Eric's favorite holiday is fast approaching. New Year's Day done in the McColley tradition calls for barbecued pulled pork, hard-shell crabs and a big party.

Last Jan. 1, the McColleys thought it was going to be a special year - not for any particular reason. Just a feeling.

"We just kept on saying 2006 would be a good year," Susan said, shrugging.

She sat on her couch next to a photo album and a mockup of Eric's flight helmet from a military memorial service.

"It turned out to be the worst year of our lives."

From a nearby room, Sonny, the household parrot, won't let the grieving family forget:

"Eric! . . . Eric!" he cries.

The name is unmistakable, and Sonny repeats it constantly.


Susan blinked through her tears.

"Life ended February 17. It will never be the same. Now we need to pick it up again and start in a new place. Eric's just everywhere."