Air Force officials hurriedly rescheduled the court-martial over the fatal crash of the last B-52 at Fairchild Air Force Base.
A spokesman for the 12th Air Force said late Thursday afternoon that the trial of Col. William Pellerin would begin this morning, rather than June 6 as originally planned.
Capt. Michael Richmond would only say the change was a result of “a legal procedural matter that I’m not at liberty to discuss.”
Richmond said he “cannot confirm nor deny” rumors that Pellerin will enter into a plea bargain arrangement to avoid a lengthy trial.
Pellerin, the operations commander at Fairchild when the B-52 crashed, is charged with three counts of dereliction of duty. He could be stripped of his rank and pension and jailed if found guilty.
The trial was originally expected to take more than a week. Richmond said late Thursday that the trial was now expected to be concluded within two days.
Lt. Col. Erik Weiss, the lead counsel for Pellerin’s defense team, refused to comment on whether his client would plead guilty.
But earlier this week, defense attorneys asked a representative of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce for affidavits of support that would be used before sentencing.
The affidavits were needed for a hearing that was to begin today, C. Michael Archer said.
Archer was paired with Pellerin for the Chamber’s Honorary Commanders Program, which matches civilians and top military officers for civic functions.
He wrote that Pellerin had the respect and admiration of his troops, and was viewed as a leader.
The court-martial has been controversial from the time charges were filed late last year.
Air Force investigators said the June 24 crash was a direct result of the dangerous maneuvers the pilot, Lt. Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland, was practicing for an upcoming air show.
Holland and the other three officers on board were killed when the plane stalled in the middle of a sharply banked, low-altitude turn. With its wings perpendicular to the runway, the giant bomber collapsed to the ground and exploded.
The first count of dereliction of duty says Pellerin didn’t acquire the proper approval for the dangerous maneuvers.
While Pellerin recommended that the dangerous routine be approved, he didn’t give the approval. Col. William Brooks, then the 92nd Bomb Wing commander, approved the flight plan, even though Air Force regulations clearly state he did not have that authority.
Brooks was never charged in the crash.
The two other counts accuse Pellerin of not disciplining Holland after he received reports that the senior pilot was breaking air safety rules. Among those who asked that Holland be grounded was Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, the commander of the base’s bomb squadron, who was the co-pilot in the plane crash.
McGeehan reportedly was flying with Holland because he didn’t want any of his subordinates to take the risk.
But Pellerin was not the only person who had received complaints about Holland’s flying tactics. For several years, other top Fairchild officials received similar reports or were present when he flew dangerous maneuvers for air shows.
None of them faced courts-martial for those previous flights.
Earlier this week, the judge in the case, Col. James Van Orsdol, denied requests by the defense attorneys to dismiss the charges against Pellerin.
Van Orsdol ruled that Gen. John M. Loh, the commander of the Air Combat Command, had not used undue influence on subordinates to force the charges to be filed.
He also ruled that Lt. Gen. Thomas R. Griffith, who ordered the court-martial, had not been improperly influenced by the details of a confidential report on the crash.
Defense attorneys had been given portions of that report, but Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall had refused to release the entire report.
When Van Orsdol’s rulings were announced Wednesday, Air Force officials said the trial would proceed as scheduled on June 6.
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