In one week 20 years ago, Fairchild Air Force Base saw its darkest hours
Twenty years ago this month people at Fairchild Air Force Base and nearby Spokane were recovering from shock, dealing with grief and wondering, “What next?”
On June 20, a former airman recently discharged for erratic behavior killed four and wounded 22 at the base hospital before he was shot dead. Four days later, with most of the wounded in hospitals and the base holding funeral services for two of the shooting victims, Fairchild’s last B-52 tilted at a sharp angle and slipped from the sky while practicing for an air show, killing all four onboard as it was engulfed in a ball of fire.
“It seems like someone is trying to test us,” a base spokesman said as the plane’s wreckage smoldered in a field near the Survival School.
The twin tragedies prompted investigations into how warnings about former airman Dean Mellberg were ignored and how a pilot with a reputation for risky flying was allowed to do dangerous things with the big bomber. They spurred policy changes to keep similar events from recurring.
Mellberg’s rampage, carried out with a MAK-90 semi-automatic rifle and a 75-round drum magazine, would prompt then-House Speaker Tom Foley to publicly support the assault weapon ban pending before Congress for the first time. The ban passed, but Foley and many Democrats who supported it were ousted in the fall, and the law expired 10 years later.
The day after the crash, the Air Force secretary insisted military planes don’t do anything for air shows that they don’t do in routine training missions, despite video footage showing the bomber perpendicular to the ground. While that was what regulations said, an Air Force investigation showed the plane was doing risky maneuvers that should never have been approved, and the Pentagon tightened controls on what pilots could do with large planes at air shows.
The tragedies stemmed from very different circumstances, but at their core they had one thing in common: a breakdown in the chain of command.
The troubled airman
Dean Mellberg wanted badly to be in the military. But from the time the awkward teen entered basic training in 1992, there were signs he didn’t fit in. Air Force doctors diagnosed him with everything from schizophrenia to adult-onset autism and recommended he be discharged. They were overruled by commanding officers, who sometimes felt pressure from above to keep him in.
Trained as an electronics technician, Mellberg lasted about six months at Fairchild until his obsession over a dispute with his roommate sent him to the base mental health staff. Psychiatrist Thomas Brigham and psychologist Alan London diagnosed him as obsessive, paranoid and possibly dangerous, and they recommended discharge. But a superior officer said he could remain in the service as long as he did his job. He got worse, and the two mental health experts sent him to Wilford Hall, the Air Force’s psychiatric hospital in Texas, recommending treatment and discharge. He received several months of treatment, along with another recommendation for a discharge.
But Mellberg fought to stay in, appealing to the Air Force inspector general and his hometown congressman from Michigan. Because of what was later described as a problem with an unclear form, instead of being discharged he was ordered returned to active duty and assigned to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. He lasted about a month before bizarre behavior brought him to the attention of that base’s mental health staff. This time, judgment was quick and final: The 20-year-old airman received an honorable discharge, was escorted off base and released without any plans for treatment or mental health follow-up.
A month later he returned to Spokane, rented a room in a north-side motel, bought the MAK-90 from a private gun dealer and a 75-round magazine at a local sporting goods store. Dressed in black and carrying a duffel bag, he took a cab to the base medical center, which sat outside the security gate. He went into the men’s room of the annex where mental health services were located, took the rifle out of the bag and attached the clip. He went to the offices of London and Brigham, killing them both, then continued across the parking lot to the hospital where he entered the emergency room door and began firing.
By the time he left the hospital, he’d killed two more and wounded 22. As Mellberg crossed the hospital lawn, base police were responding to the flood of 911 calls. Security Policeman Andy Brown ordered him to halt and drop his weapon. He didn’t, but Mellberg’s gun jammed and Brown fired four shots; two hit Mellberg, and one of those was fatal.
Mellberg’s most seriously injured victims were rushed to Spokane hospitals and the community’s trauma response system was strained to the limit. One of the wounded, Michelle Sigman, was pregnant, and her unborn child died, but all other victims survived.
The hotshot pilot
To admirers, Col. Arthur “Bud” Holland was the best B-52 pilot at Fairchild, someone who could do things with the big Cold War-era bombers that no one else could. To critics, he was a dangerous risk-taker who needed to be watched or possibly grounded.
In the last weeks of June, Fairchild was ending nearly a half-century as a home to bombers. Only one B-52 remained on the base, mainly there to keep the dwindling number of air and ground crews proficient until they moved to other facilities.
Fairchild’s last open house as a bomber base was scheduled for June 26. After the Mellberg shootings the Monday before the event, base officials refused to cancel it, saying it would help lift spirits as the community worked through the grief.
The air shows always had featured a B-52 flight. Months earlier, Holland had wowed top brass at a change-of-command ceremony with steep climbs and sharply banked turns shortly after takeoff. He’d flown similar maneuvers in previous air shows.
But the commander of Fairchild’s bomb squadron, Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, had seen some of Holland’s maneuvers and heard about others, and he had a different opinion: They weren’t safe.
Holland and McGeehan had it out in front of Col. William Brooks, the wing base commander. Holland got a warning but later was picked to fly the bomber in the air show, just as he had the three previous years. McGeehan, who said he wouldn’t let any of his junior officers fly with Holland, took the job of co-pilot.
On a warm Friday afternoon, with Fairchild personnel and their families gathered near the flight line to watch and photograph, the bomber made several practice runs of the maneuvers – a steep climb from the runway, a sharp left turn with wings at about 45 degrees to the ground. Cheers turned to gasps of horror as the plane made a final pass of the runway, went up, tilted to 45 degrees and kept rotating until the wings were almost perpendicular to the ground. The bomber dropped wing first, its tail struck power lines, and the crash set off a ball of fire. Holland, McGeehan and two other senior officers, who were making their last B-52 flight before transferring to desk jobs, were killed instantly. The crash just missed the Survival School, which contained about 500 students and instructors, and the area where Fairchild stored its nuclear weapons.
“We’re not strangers to tragedy,” the commander of a unit sent to guard the wreckage said that evening.
In the months and years that followed, the tragedies generated official investigations and stacks of reports, helped pass legislation and prompted changes at the base and in the Air Force. Mellberg’s victims sued the Air Force. The officer who approved Holland’s flight plan for the air show faced court-martial.
One of the first changes was probably the easiest. The base medical complex was enclosed within the base security fence, accessible only through a guarded gate.
The investigation into Mellberg’s recruitment, training, treatment and eventual discharge showed he never should have been allowed to enlist, as well as several points when he should have been discharged. After Brigham and London sent him to Wilford Hall, doctors there recommended he be “processed for disposition,” which they said later meant he should be discharged. But a superior officer interpreted that to mean he should be reassigned. The Air Force changed some procedures for handling personnel with mental health problems, clarifying forms and making it harder for commanders to override a doctor’s discharge recommendation.
Military bases have since been the scene of about a dozen incidents involving gunmen and multiple casualties. Whenever a new one occurs, the accompanying chronological lists of previous incidents usually begin with the Mellberg shootings. Some gun-rights supporters argue that’s because military personnel were banned from carrying their own weapons onto bases in 1993.
The Air Force now has what it calls an “active shooter” program, designed to identify a person at risk of hurting himself or others. Among the red flags are people who express anger toward the military, thoughts of harming people or feeling trapped or threatened in some way. Staff who notice such activity are trained to contact supervisors, or if they perceive an imminent threat, to call security.
The type of gun Mellberg used – patterned after a military-style assault weapon and imported from China – was among those covered by the ban enacted by Congress. But it only covered new ones; those already in the country were exempt. That ban ended in 2004 when Congress refused to renew it.
An ‘unhealthy mix’
Susan Brigham, widow of the psychiatrist who was Mellberg’s second victim, said she was dumbfounded when she heard the ban wasn’t renewed. After the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last year, she wrote in a newspaper guest column that she once bought a gun like the one Mellberg used to kill her husband, the same type of clip and ammunition, as a way to work through her grief. The clerk at the gun store explained how it worked; she took it home, stacked up the ammunition on the table and had a friend take a picture, and noted it took longer to have her hair done for the photo and line up the rounds than it did to buy the weapon.
The reports of each new mass shooting are so painful that she has to limit her exposure to what she called “the morbid soap opera” of the news coverage, but she thinks the nation suffers from a lack of leadership and a lack of common sense as it tries to deal with gun violence. “Mental illness and weaponry – it’s a very unhealthy mix,” she said.
Lawsuits from Mellberg’s victims were consolidated in U.S. District Court in Spokane, and the federal government invoked the Feres Doctrine, which gives the military immunity from claims connected to military service. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that immunity didn’t apply to the mistakes the Air Force made in recruiting Mellberg and discharging him without a treatment plan. Facing a trial in 2001, the Air Force settled the claims for $17 million.
The Air Force investigation into the B-52 crash found multiple causes for the accident, including maneuvers so low and so steep they violated safety regulations and the plane’s flight manual. But it also cited a lack of leadership by Holland’s superiors. Brooks, the wing commander, approved the maneuvers even though they violated Air Force regulations. Col. William Pellerin, the operations commander who flew the maneuvers with Holland a few days before the crash, should have ordered changes but didn’t. Facing court-martial, Pellerin admitted to dereliction of duty and was reprimanded and fined $7,500. Brooks, who was offered immunity for his testimony, was reassigned and lost his bid to make general.
Pellerin was made a scapegoat, the widow of one of the dead aviators said. Officers higher up the chain of command saw Holland fly many times over the years, did nothing and were let off scot-free, she said.
The Air Force already had rules that should have kept a B-52 pilot from performing such stunts, but it turned out commanders at Fairchild didn’t even know the rules existed, even though they stemmed from a crash at the base seven years earlier. After the crash, the Air Combat Command sent instructions to all bases reminding commanders of those rules.
Only one B-52 has crashed since 1994, in an accident attributed to malfunctioning equipment.