FOR THE RECORD: (May 24, 1995): The Spokesman-Review incorrectly identified the position of Defense Secretary William Perry in Tuesday’s editions.
An Air Force colonel who admitted his “inexcusably poor judgment” contributed to the fatal crash of a B-52 at Fairchild Air Force Base was reprimanded and fined $7,500 Monday.
Col. William Pellerin, the officer in charge of flight operations when the crash occurred, said his mistakes will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I accept full responsibility for not having prevented this,” he told a military judge at a hearing in Tucson, Ariz. “It was my duty to do so.”
The June 24 crash, coupled with Pellerin’s conviction and sentence, could spur a congressional study of Air Force safety procedures and accident investigations.
“The Air Force is going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who is sharply critical of the Air Force for ignoring safety rules. “This could be their version of Tailhook.”
Dicks said the sentence seemed light, considering four officers died in the crash. He said he hopes it sends a strong enough warning for other Air Force officers to obey the rules.
But the widow of one of the aviators killed in the crash said she was glad that Pellerin wasn’t jailed or dismissed from the Air Force.
“I feel like they’re using Col. Pellerin as a scapegoat,” said Elizabeth Huston, the widow of Lt. Col. Kenneth Huston, the plane’s navigator. “He’s made mistakes, but we’ve all made mistakes.”
When the plane crashed, it was practicing an air show routine that involved steep climbs, sharply banked turns and low-level passes. Air Force regulations prohibit such maneuvers in air shows without special approval. Fairchild officials never obtained that approval.
Elizabeth Huston said the pilot of the plane, Lt. Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland, was actually encouraged to fly maneuvers.
She said the Air Force should continue up the chain of command to ask why Pellerin’s supervisor, Col. William Brooks, and other Fairchild wing commanders didn’t stop the dangerous maneuvers years earlier.
“Bud (Holland) flew the exact same maneuvers the year before at the air show,” she said. Gen. James Richards, then the wing commander, “patted him on the back and said ‘Way to go, Bud,”’ she recalled.
Neither Richards nor Brooks was charged in the crash. Richards remains in the Air Force. Brooks retired with full benefits a few weeks ago, an Air Force spokeswoman said.
Originally confirmed by the Senate to make general, Brooks was never promoted after the crash.
At his sentencing, Pellerin asked the military judge to consider his mistakes “an aberration in a 25-year career in which I’ve always tried to maintain good judgment.”
Col. James Van Orsdol, the judge, agreed Pellerin’s record was outstanding in all respects except one.
“You seem to have developed a blind spot in regard to the flying of Col. Holland,” Van Orsdol said. “You treated him as a special case.”
Pellerin’s file will contain a written reprimand. His base pay of $5,681 a month will be docked $1,500 per month for five months, Van Orsdol said.
Maj. Steven Parrish, the prosecutor, said the blame lies solely with Pellerin.
“There wasn’t a breakdown of the Air Force in this case. It was a breakdown of Col. Pellerin,” Parrish argued. “If the regulations were followed, we wouldn’t have had what occurred on this (flight).”
But critics of the Air Force’s safety record disagreed.
John Nance, an Air Force reserve officer and airline pilot who is a consultant on aviation safety, said the Pellerin case seems to fit a pattern of protecting high-ranking officers.
“The Air Force…forms a protective shield over the chain of command,” said Nance. “The brotherhood demands the leadership be protected. It blames an individual to avoid blaming the system.
A new report to Air Force Secretary William Perry points to the June 24 crash as one of some 30 accidents that show the Air Force protects some officers, ignores safety training and mishandles accident investigations.
Air Force safety expert Alan Diehl, the report’s author, warns a “handful of sycophants, incompetents and charlatans” are driving up that service’s accident rates.
Perry has promised an inspector general investigation of that report. When the report is done, Dicks said, hearings will start.
“This is not a partisan issue, this is something everyone understands,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of lives unnecessarily.”