The Air Force announced Thursday it has relieved three senior officers from command following an investigation of the April 3 air crash in Croatia that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and the other 34 people aboard.
The Air Force said the action came because Maj. Gen. Charles R. Heflebower, commander of the 17th Air Force, has “lost confidence” in the ability of the three “to effectively discharge their responsibilities.”
Air Force officials declined to provide additional details, saying the investigation is still under review and the results would not be made public for another two weeks. They also cautioned that Thursday’s action does not preclude courtmartial of the three officers later.
However, private analysts speculated that the swift action by the Air Force suggests investigators may have found widespread deficiencies in the efforts by top-level commanders to ensure that such “VIP” transports followed safety procedures.
Although Brown’s flight was considered routine, the CT-43A transport confronted a spate of dangerous conditions, including unusually heavy storms and an outdated ground control system at the airport at Dubrovnik, Croatia, where the plane was to have landed.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman has vowed to hold senior commanders responsible when such an accident occurs. The Air Force had been criticized in some earlier cases for allowing high-ranking officers to escape punishment while junior officers were blamed.
The three officers relieved of their commands are Brig. Gen. William E. Stevens, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at the time of the crash; Col. Roger W. Hansen, the vice commander then, and Col. John E. Mazurowski, commander of the 86th Operations Group.
Only a few days before the crash, Stevens had removed Lt. Col. James Albright, the commander of the 76th Airlift Squadron, who reportedly had raised concerns about the safety of procedures being followed by pilots of flights carrying VIPs such as Brown.
One source said investigators have interviewed Albright extensively, suggesting that they have placed a good deal of weight on his assessment of the procedures being used at the time of the crash.
Just after the crash involving Brown, the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes quoted a pilot in Ramstein, Germany, where the airlift operation is based, saying Albright had objected to “pressure from above” to allow such VIP flights into airports such as Dubrovnik.
Aviation Week magazine reported after the crash that neither of the pilots had landed at Dubrovnik airport before, and that they were completing their fourth flight of the day when the accident occurred.
Officers suggested Thursday there also were questions about whether the Air Force had surveyed the airport at Dubrovnik to certify that its facilities and approach patterns met U.S. standards.
The Air Force announced this month that it intended to buy satellite-aided navigational systems for use in its passenger planes as an interim response to the April 3 crash, to help pilots determine when their planes have deviated from an intended approach path.
One of the navigational aids was developed by Ike Isaacson, a 50-year-old Fairchild Air Force Base master sergeant. He developed a portable tracking system the Pentagon is considering adopting as an interim safeguard.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry also ordered that all military aircraft carrying passengers be equipped with voice- and flight-data recorders and with equipment that can help determine the precise position of a plane at any given moment.
Air Force officials said Thursday’s decision to relieve the three officers was made with the approval of Gen. Michael Ryan, commander of U.S. air forces in Europe. They said the trio will be reassigned to new, still-unspecified duties.
Under Air Force procedures, after the initial investigation has been completed, the service will convene a military equivalent of a grand jury to decide whether criminal charges should be pressed. If the panel issues an indictment, a court-martial will be held.
xxxx BAD MOVE A squadron commander who raised concerns about the safety of procedures being followed by pilots of flights carrying VIPs was removed from duty a few days before the crash.