April 6, 1996 in Nation/World

Af Pilots’ Judgment Questioned Pressures On Military Fliers Can Be Fatal, Experts Say

John H. Cushman Jr. New York Times
 

One of the most difficult questions faced by investigators of the jet crash in Croatia that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and everyone else on board is whether the pilots took unnecessary risks to deliver their VIP passengers.

Going strictly by the book, the pilots on Wednesday’s flight to Dubrovnik could have been justified in turning back from their approach to Dubrovnik’s airport: The weather that day has been called the worst in a decade, the airport was not equipped with modern precision landing aids, and the mountainous coastal terrain is tricky under any circumstances.

But military pilots think of themselves as different, even if their planes, like this one, are often almost identical to those in commercial fleets. Since other planes had landed safely at Dubrovnik before them, it might be understandable if the officers in command of Brown’s flight succumbed to the dangerous ailment that in aviation circles goes by the name “get-there-itis.”

“Pilots suffer lots of pressures, and as a result they make errors in judgment,” said Richard Jensen, a professor of aviation at Ohio State University who for decades has studied decision-making by pilots. “One of the pressures I identified in my book on pilot judgment is their sense of duty. Whether that is greater in the military than in civilian life, I don’t know. I would speculate that it is.”

Stuart Matthews, the head of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-sponsored organization in Virginia, suggested that the culture of military pilots was different from that of civilians. “I think they must be under tremendous pressure, especially with VIPs on board,” he said.

Like Jenson, he emphasized that he could only speculate at this time about what happened to the plane carrying Brown and why.

Air Force officers said Friday that their past concerns over the safety of ferrying dignitaries around the former Yugoslavia by plane had centered on the possibility of hostile fire.

They confirmed that commanders of the unit flying Brown’s plane had discussed safety issues in December and deferred flying civilian-type jets to former war zones during the early parts of the peacekeeping operation because of the fear of military action.

But Brig. Gen. William E. Stevens, the airlift wing’s commander, denied that safety concerns that had been raised by Lt. Col. James Albright had played any role in the general’s decision shortly before the crash to replace the colonel as a squadron commander of the plane that crashed.

The European edition of Stars & Stripes, an unofficial newspaper that circulates among military personnel abroad, had quoted an unidentified pilot as saying the colonel was replaced after he had warned of dangers involving weather and inadequate navigation equipment.

Stevens said the colonel had raised concerns only about hostile fire, and had agreed with the decision later that it was safe enough to begin the VIP flights.

He also said his pilots were under no pressure to fly in bad weather or other dangerous conditions.

The two pilots, Capt. Ashley Davis, 35, and Capt. Tim Schafer, 33, were based in Germany. Their ages were typical for Air Force pilots, but perhaps younger than one might expect to find on comparable commercial airliners. Both were experienced in the cockpit of this kind of plane, according to the Air Force.


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