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Fairchild Crash Report Secrecy Lifted While Perhaps Unprecedented, The Release Of Information Is Highly Restricted

The Air Force is giving portions of a secret report to the attorneys for the former Fairchild officer facing court-martial over the crash of the base’s last B-52.

Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said Tuesday attorneys for Col. William Pellerin should receive parts of the confidential Safety Board Report of the June 24 crash that killed the four-man crew last year.

“The interests of justice and Col. Pellerin’s right to a fair trial” make the limited release of the information necessary, Widnall said.

After her announcement, Pellerin’s attorneys requested even more information from the confidential report. During a pretrial hearing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., they also asked for dismissal of all charges against Pellerin.

Col. James Van Orsdol, the court-martial judge, postponed a ruling on those requests.

The information Widnall is releasing is not being given to prosecutors and cannot be used at the court-martial without a separate ruling from the judge, said a Pentagon legal expert who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The release of information from a safety report - which is gathered with promises to witnesses that it never will be used to punish them - may be unprecedented, the Pentagon expert said. But the case is so unusual and the ruling is so restricted that “it doesn’t necessarily open the floodgates” for more requests, he added.

Some of the information released Tuesday includes statements from three witnesses who are expected to testify for the defense, the legal expert said.

Pellerin, operations commander at the time of the crash, faces three counts of dereliction of duty.

The B-52 crew was practicing for an upcoming air show, flying maneuvers that both the Air Force and the plane’s manufacturer consider dangerous. While in the middle of a steeply banked 360-degree turn, the plane stalled and slammed wing-first into the ground.

Killed were Lt. Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland, the pilot; Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, the co-pilot; Lt. Col. Kenneth Huston, the navigator; and Col. Robert Wolff, an observer who was vice commander of Fairchild’s 92nd Bomb Wing.

According to a separate report by a different group of investigators, Pellerin recommended the maneuvers be approved by Col. William Brooks, then the wing commander. Brooks approved them, even though neither he nor Pellerin had that authority under Air Force regulations.

Accident investigators also said Pellerin should have grounded Holland, the base’s top pilot, after being told of Holland’s history of violating Air Force safety rules.

McGeehan had reported one such violation and when Holland wasn’t grounded, refused to allow junior officers in his squadron to fly the maneuvers.

This information is contained in the Accident Board report, which is public. But the Air Force always conducts two investigations, and information gathered by the separate Safety Board never is released because rules keep it confidential.

After Pellerin’s attorneys asked for the safety report last month, Widnall allowed Van Orsdol to review it. The judge ruled several parts would be helpful to the defense and asked Widnall to release them.

The Air Force is so reluctant to release information from a Safety Board Report that the judge must agree to procedures for handling it.

If the report were introduced at the court-martial, Van Orsdol has the authority to close the trial at that point and order the records sealed, the Pentagon legal expert said.

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