Plane Crash Cover-Up
Last December, nearly 3,000 mourners packed a Portland memorial service for 10 Air Force reservists who died in a mysterious plane crash. The part-time airmen--one was a Portland cop, another was a bank loan officer, another was a UPS dock worker--were flying a C-130 called King-56 when it went down over the Pacific Ocean, killing everyone on board except the radio operator. For five months, the crew's widows grieved, hoping an Air Force investigation would explain why the C-130 suddenly and inexplicably lost power on all four engines and spent 16 hellish minutes dropping out of the sky. On April 24, the Air Force released the results of its investigation. The crash, the three-inch thick report concluded, was a mystery. The widows' hopes were deflated--and they were skeptical. "We just knew there was something suspicious about it," says Gayle Schott, widow of King-56's pilot. Plane crashes rarely go unsolved.Despite the publicity over the puzzling crash of TWA Flight 800 last summer, most crash investigations determine a cause. In fact, more than 98 percent of all airplane accidents in the last five years have been solved, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. But the King-56 investigation is extraordinary for other reasons. Buried deep in the accident report is a likely cause for the King-56 crash. Although Air Force investigators ruled out this theory, a Willamette Week investigation found ample support for it--and raised even larger questions about the Air Force's ability and willingness to police its own accidents. WW found the following:* An Air Force pilot told investigators, while testifying under oath, that he had experienced engine problems similar to King-56's and he knew--from an Air Force safety memo--that the cause of his plane's problem was a mechanical glitch known as "four-engine rollback."* Support for that explanation came from aircraft experts, aviation engineers and pilots who told WW that many C-130s suffer from the glitch known as four-engine rollback, which can cause C-130 engines to fail just as they did on King-56.* Air Force investigators dismissed the four-engine rollback theory in their April 24 report, but the Air Force itself issued an internal memo-on the next day, April 25-explicitly warning that four-engine rollback can cause the kind of engine failure that struck King-56. The memo, obtained by WW, also states that a four-engine rollback shows the same gauge indications as King-56 experienced before crashing.* The King-56 investigation is not the first to be criticized for its flaws. In 1995, the Air Force's top civilian safety officer produced a report criticizing 30 bungled investigations. "The idea that Air Force investigations are flawless is a total myth," says John Nance, a former Air Force pilot and current aviation analyst for ABC News. "This is a major national scandal that's still percolating up."* Exacerbating suspicions about the King-56 report is the fact that the Air Force also conducted a separate, secret investigation into the crash of King-56 that it will not make public. That confidential investigation is protected by a federal law and is not even shared with the wives of the King-56 crew. Because of the questions surrounding the King-56 probes, Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden have persuaded the National Transportation Safety Board to take a very unusual step and review the Air Force investigation. The widows say they want to make sure no one else suffers what they and their husbands did."I sense that a lot of other families have been handed the same inconclusive reports," says Schott. "I have to know measures are being take to prevent any more accidents."The Friday before Thanksgiving, the King-56 crew climbed aboard the hulking four-engine plane at Portland International Airport. The reservists were headed for sunny San Diego and a water rescue training operation. "They were joking how warm it was going to be down there," recalled Sgt. Terence Harris, one of the 352 members of the Portland-based 304th Rescue Squadron. A snout-nosed, stout-bellied transport, the C-130 is known as the Air Force's most blue-collar plane. The Air Force has been purchasing C-130s from Lockheed since 1954. This particular plane-called King-56 but nicknamed "Ethel"-had flown more than 11,000 hours.It had dropped beer and ammunition to troops in Vietnam and delivered food and medical supplies to hurricane victims in Florida. Ethel and her crew never got near San Diego that Friday, Nov. 22. Eighty-four minutes after taking off at 5:12 pm, the aircraft experienced sudden and strange signs of power failure. The cockpit voice recorder captured the crew's confusion. "What's going on here?" pilot Bob Schott wondered as the first signs of power loss surfaced.Engineer Bob Roberts studied the engine gauges monitoring torque and fuel flow. "They're all going to shit," Roberts said. "What the fuck's going on here," co-pilot Brant Ferrarini repeated, as the crew ran through a series of emergency procedures to no avail. Schott narrowed it down: "OK, guys, I think we've got an electrical problem."But it was too late. Seven seconds later, King-56 lost all engine power, and there was nothing the crew could do to restart the 4,190 horsepower engines in mid-flight. They spent the next 16 minutes in eerie dark and quiet, dropping at 200 miles an hour toward the mile-deep ocean, 40 miles from the coast. "It wouldn't make sense to jump," the plane's lone survivor, Sgt. Bobby Vogel, told WW. "At night over the Pacific, in the water, nobody knows where we're at. I don't think that would have been a good decision. We would have been all separated at night." At 7,000 feet, Ferrarini ordered the escape hatches opened and the crew could hear the air rushing in. That was the only sound they heard in a plane normally as noisy as a cement-mixer. In the dark, Vogel peered at the battery-lit buttons of a cell phone he had sneaked onto the plane. He dialed 911. Twice."It was busy both times," he told WW. Vogel took off his glasses and cinched his seat belt as tight as he could. The plane broke through a cloud bank at 800 feet. Vogel says the next thing he knew there was a crashing sound, "like the clap of an explosion," and he was thrown into the water. After almost three hours of clinging to a seat cushion, he was hoisted to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter. The Air Force ordered him not to discuss anything but his experience in the water until the investigation-already under way-was complete. In fact, before Vogel was plucked from the ocean, the fuel trucks that filled King-56 were impounded.Whenever one of its planes crashes, the Air Force convenes an accident board to investigate and produce a public report. But unlike the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates civilian and commercial airline crashes and uses full-time investigators expert in areas like metallurgy, the Air Force dispatches regular officers to the crash scene.Most of those officers have little training in crash investigations, and they're given just 30 days to do the job. In the case of King-56, the Accident Board was headed by Col. Larry Landtroop, a native of Ranger, Texas, stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. A 52-year-old Vietnam veteran, Landtroop had flown 3,500 hours in C-130s-roughly the same amount of C-130 flying time King-56 pilot Bob Schott had.But Landtroop had never served on a crash investigation before--and he came to hope he never would again. Landtroop's board produced a 456-page, five-pound document. The report concluded that the plane's four engines failed because of "fuel starvation." But the "cause of the fuel starvation," report stated, "is unknown." Tests showed that the fuel was not contaminated. The Accident Board also ruled out crew error. Even if the crew had accidentally shut off fuel pumps, the engines would still receive fuel from gravity-fed tanks that sit just above them on the wings. "The bottom line is even if they turned everything off, or had total electrical failure, it just gravity feeds," Landtroop told WW. Landtroop was left to conclude that the first crash he investigated was a mystery he couldn't explain. "Basically, what happened can't happen," he said. "But it did." Landtroop told WW that he hopes he never has to serve on another Accident Board. "Do you have any idea," the heavily decorated war veteran drawled, "how mentally and emotionally draining these are? I'm a very sensitive person. It really took it out of me."Like their "weekend warrior" husbands, the King-56 widows tend to be a patriotic bunch. They're soccer moms, not bomb-throwers. Tawni Ferrarini has taught economics at Lewis & Clark College; Gayle Schott is a surgical-unit manager at Providence Portland Medical Center; Sue McAuley is a physical-therapy assistant for Portland Public Schools. Still, there was one thing about the Accident Board report that shook their confidence in the Air Force. It wasn't the fact that the report contained only three minutes of the final 30-minute cockpit recording; or that the malfunctioning flight recorder "failed to provide crucial data," according to investigators; or that the Air Force refused to bring up 75 percent of the wreckage-which stands in stark contrast to the way the NTSB has almost totally reconstructed TWA Flight 800 after salvaging 95 pe rcent of the aircraft.What really irked the wives was that when one pilot from the 304th Squadron, Major Walt Mulder, testified as to a likely cause for the crash, investigators seemed to ignore him. Mulder is known as a "hot shit pilot," according to Vogel. Testifying on March 14, Mulder told investigators about his experience four years earlier with an electrical abnormality that causes C-130 engines to shut down. When Mulder experienced the problem, called four-engine rollback, he witnessed the same signs as King-56: decreasing torque, turbine inlet temperature and fuel flow, first on one engine, then quickly on the other three."We experienced indications of a possible flame-out on one engine," Mulder testified; then "the other engines started losing power and rolling back." Luckily, Mulder said his flight engineer remembered a procedure for dealing with four-engine rollback. When he executed the last step--which was "throwing the circuit breakers on the synchrophaser"--it corrected the problem and brought the engines back to life. (There's no evidence the King-56 crew followed the same procedures; see "Who's to Blame," page 25.) Curiously, although the Accident Board report contains Mulder's provocative testimony, it never assesses its relevance. The report says nothing about his testimony, even though it goes to lengths to dismiss other possibilities, such as fire-suppression foam in the fuel tanks. This puzzled Gayle Schott. "Why did no one follow up on the testimony of Major Mulder? It's bizarre," she says. Last week, Landtroop, the chief investigator, told Willamette Week that he pursued Mulder's testimony but found that the four-engine rollback Mulder cited could not cause engines to flame out."The bottom line is that a synchrophaser four-engine rollback will not flame out an engine," Landtroop insisted. "Everyone I talked to agreed that it cannot flame out an engine. "You can sit there and hypothesize that the synchrophaser did it," Landtroop continued, "but there is absolutely no way on this earth you can prove it."Landtroop's comments are puzzling for several reasons:* C-130 flight manuals warn pilots that the "synchrophaser can malfunction" and cause four-engine power loss.* The problem was known to an Air Force safety officer, who was quoted in a recent Boston Globe story. Roy Poole, an Air Training Command safety officer, told the newspaper he had witnessed two separate incidents involving all four C-130 engines losing power at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.* Other aviation experts and engineers told Willamette Week that the synchrophaser problem is well-known. "Synchrophaser-induced rollback is a known fact," says Harry Snow, president of an Ohio company that has designed a new electrical system for the C-130. Barrett Hanley, a former Lockheed test pilot, agrees. "Major Mulder has certainly brought up a possibility," Hanley says.* On April 25-the day after Landtroop issued his report-the Air Force released a new, more detailed "safety supplement" for C-130s, which clearly warns that four-engine rollback can indeed cause all four engines to flame out. Reflecting what Mulder said, the bulletin reads: "The synchrophaser can malfunction causing torque to drop 2,000 inch-pounds or more. If corrective actions are not initiated promptly, flame out of all engines is possible." ABC analyst Nance calls the April 25 Air Force safety memo a "smoking gun."* The Air Force issued a second safety supplement for C-130s on April 30, warning of synchrophaser malfunctions and "four engine rollback" leading to flame out. Sen. Wyden's office forwarded both Air Force safety memos to the NTSB. "This obviously raises a very disturbing question," says Wyden's chief aide, Josh Kardon. "We are anxious to get the NTSB's views of the relevancy of the timing of these two disclosures." Furthermore, the Air Force Safety Center describes the cause of the King-56 crash as an "electrical anomaly" in a June 3 list of recent C-130 accidents. Both Mulder and the Air Force safety bulletins use the term "electric anomaly" to describe what might have happened to King-56, while the Accident Board's conclusion never uses the term. Landtroop maintains, however, that there's still no proof that a synchrophaser malfunction caused King-56-or any other plane-to crash. "That's correct, there is a possibility this might happen," says Landtroop, who had not seen the April 25 safety memo until WW sent it to him. "But the Accident Board has to have clear and convincing evidence, and there are no facts to substantiate that." Landtroop says Air Force safety officials who issued the memo "don't have to have facts; they can go on probabilities and possibilities."Why would Landtroop's investigation dismiss such a likely cause? Nance and other critics cite two possible reasons: incompetence and politics. On the first count, Nance stresses that the Air Force officers are inadequately trained for the complex work of solving a crash. "The Air Force takes officers who usually have no more than a three-day course [in investigations] and all of sudden they're ripped out of the night to be accident investigators." And they have just 30 days to finish their task. By contrast, the NTSB has spent 11 months investigating the TWA Flight 800 crash and only recently has arrived at a highly probable cause. "The difference between the Air Force and the NTSB is like night and day," says Alan Diehl, who has been both an NTSB investigator and the Air Force's top civilian safety officer. The other possibility--and one for which there is no direct evidence--is that Landtroop is covering up something that would embarrass the Air Force. "Often the people involved with the investigation would like to do a good job but they realize that they could be in a world of hurt if they open their mouth," says Diehl. "On numerous occasions, a diligent investigator has been reprimanded for putting out what he thought is the truth." What might Landtroop be covering up?Obviously, the Air Force knew that malfunctioning synchrophasers could cause four-engine flame-out. Yet it didn't fix the problem.In a June 4 letter to Smith and Wyden, the Air Force touted the quality of its investigations, stressing that they have been exonerated by military auditors. But critics maintain that the Air Force investigations do not have a good record. In 1995, when he was still a top safety official for the Air Force, Diehl cataloged 30 faulty probes, which he blamed on the work of "incompetents, charlatans and sycophants." In a report to Defense Secretary William Perry, Diehl said, "These cases are just the tip of the iceberg." His claims were supported by others, including Brigadier General Joel Hall, who said in his retirement letter that "the investigative process has been politicized to the point of dysfunction. I sincerely believe that as events and decisions are now occurring, we are headed for disaster." Jerry Perkins, a retired Air Force Safety Center officer, says he was told on two occasions to change the classification of accidents so they would reflect better on Air Force accident-rate statistics. Perkins also says he knows of at least one case in which Air Force generals interceded and told a crash investigator's commander to "shut this guy up." "The Pentagon will send a body back, but not the truth," Diehl says, "particularly when it's embarrassing to some commander."Adding to the mystery of the investigation into the crash of King-56 is the revelation that the Air Force conducted another investigation--a secret one--in addition to the one performed by Landtroop's Accident Board. The widows and taxpayers, however, will never see that report. Federal law allows the military branches to launch a separate and secret investigation when an accident occurs. This group of investigators, known as the Safety Board, has one mission: to prevent future accidents from happening. Therefore it has powers the Accident Board doesn't. Specifically, the Safety Board grants immunity to witnesses so they can speak freely of mistakes they made or witnessed. Their testimony is never seen by the public. "I could have told the Safety Board I shot everybody in the head and then drove the plane into the ground," lone survivor Vogel says. And the public might never know. That's outrageous, says Laura Wellnitz, widow of the plane's navigator. "Look at the Space Shuttle," she says. "Everybody and their dog knows what caused the crash--a defective O-ring. All those families were informed--why aren't we being given that kind of information?" "If this was a commercial airliner crash and the explanation was what the Air Force offered here, I don't think people would be satisfied," says Keith Tichenor, a Portland lawyer hired by Wellnitz and four other widows. The two boards are so separate that they never even meet to share information--which may mean that the Accident Board publicly says it can't explain a crash, while the Safety Board knows exactly what happened. That disturbs Sen. Gordon Smith. "I'm scratching my head as to the wisdom of such a system," Smith says. "What benefit is a secretive investigation, staffed by volunteers, irregularly employed at this task? Are they protecting someone's hide in the Pentagon, or the public and public servants?" The fact that the Air Force investigates itself--and can keep its findings secret--makes it dangerously easy for problems to go uncorrected, Diehl adds. "It enables an investigator to say, 'You don't have to put it in a report; I'll take care of it.' But then it's not fixed because money is tight and synchrophasers are competing for budget dollars with new planes like F-22s and C-130Js," Diehl says. Because of these inherent flaws, critics like Diehl and Nance have called for the creation of a single independent agency to investigate military accidents. Smith says it sounds like a good idea. "Let's have some openness and accountability," he says. "It seems the NTSB process is a better way to go." Lone survivor Vogel is a loyal Air Force reservist who has returned to duty and refuses to speculate on the crash. Still, he would like some answers. "The problem is still there," he says. "Who says it won't happen again? I sure would like to know what it is before I die." The widows want solutions, too. "I won't be satisfied until I know no one else will have to die," says Wellnitz. Diehl stresses that only Congress has the power to change the law that allows the Air Force to police itself with secret investigations. He's glad that Wyden and Smith are pressing for a new look into the crash of King-56, but he says that doesn't go far enough. "If your two senators would demand that the General Accounting Office look into this and other similar problems-particularly unreported accidents and uncorrected problems-they will not find a smoking memo," he says, "but a smoking library. There's a whole history of the Air Force flying defective aircraft."SIDEBAR: Who's to Blame? Air Force officials aren't the only ones likely to face increased scrutiny over the crash of King-56. Some of the airmen's widows are considering suing Lockheed-Martin, the plane's manufacturer, or United Technologies, the company that invented the part that may have caused the crash. "We've been asked to investigate whether there is basis for a complaint, and that's about all I can tell you at this point," says Keith Tichenor, a lawyer with the Portland firm Pozzi Wilson Atchison, which represents five of the widows and King-56 crash survivor Bobby Vogel. At the center of the legal questions is a part called the "synchrophaser." Many sources suspect it caused the King-56 crash. The synchrophaser is a computer--roughly the size of a fat dictionary--that controls C-130 propeller blades and, ultimately, the engines' fuel and air flow. People familiar with C-130s have noticed that a voltage surge or drop--possibly caused by high-frequency radios--can make the synchrophaser malfunction, telling the engines to quit for no good reason. The only way to avert disaster in that case is to disable the synchrophaser by throwing its circuit breaker and shutting off its power supply. It's not clear whether the King-56 crew realized that the synchrophaser could have caused their engines to quit and took appropriate steps to correct the problem. Nowhere on the three minutes of cockpit recording released by the Air Force does the crew mention "synchrophaser." Nor do crew members indicate that they threw the computer's circuit breakers. Vogel told Air Force investigators that he thought the crew might have thrown the circuit breakers, but he couldn't be sure. Tim Forte, former director of aviation safety for the National Transportation Safety Board, thinks the crew "probably screwed up." Forte notes that crew members were alerted to the problem by the flight manual, and the cockpit recording shows they had ample time to shut down the synchrophaser. Bill Galbreath, one of the widows' attorneys, disagrees. He says the cockpit recording shows the crew was taking the right actions and going through the prescribed set of measures-step-by-step-but ran out of time. "It's my conclusion that the crew followed procedures but simply did not have time to follow all the manual procedures," he says. Galbreath also notes that the new Air Force safety bulletin instructs crews to carry out procedures that weren't in their flight manuals. It's not enough to shut off the synchrophaser, the bulletin says. It tells crews that they should literally remove the synchrophaser from its mount and stow it away so that it doesn't continue to conduct electricity after being shut off. If King-56's synchrophasers were faulty and the crew did the right thing, it's unclear who might be most culpable for the crash. The Air Force has not yet responded to Freedom of Information Act requests by Willamette Week and the widows' lawyers, which might provide some answers. Lockheed-Martin refuses to answer WW's questions. Instead, two spokesmen for the top defense contractor in the country have steered questions to a military lawyer at the Air Force Safety Center, who, in turn, has referred all questions to the Pentagon. This much is clear: The widows face an uphill battle if they try to sue. Federal law provides the military and defense contractors extraordinary protections against lawsuits. Sidebar: The Enemy Within Although the death of 10 Air Force reservists off the Oregon coast made local headlines last year, fatal military mishaps are disturbingly commonplace. In the past two decades, U.S. military personnel have been more likely to be killed in accidents than in battle. Since 1979, accidents have killed more than 29,000 men and women in the U.S. military, while only 558 soldiers, sailors and airmen have died in combat, according to a Boston Globe series published last week. The Globe's six-month investigation found that aviation crashes were the most costly and among the most common accidents. From 1991-96, there were 198 major Air Force crashes-about one every 11 days. The newspaper's investigation was particularly critical of the Air Force's crash investigations. According to the three-part series:* "The Air Force has a fundamental conflict of interest in its investigation procedures";* "Safety-related criticism of command decisions is dismissed";* "Commanding officers sometimes direct investigators away from areas that could reflect poorly on their leadership";* "Accidents are sometimes misclassified to improve safety statistics";* "Critics believe the flaws in the system used to investigate air crashes are a principal reason why the military accident rate remains five times higher than that for commercial flights." In criticizing Air Force crash probes, the newspaper focused on the fact that the Air Force investigates itself. A former Air Force safety official compared the Air Force process to a system that would allow TWA to investigate the explosion of its own Flight 800. Such a system, critics said, allows some Air Force investigators to publicly downplay mechanical problems. The series also noted that Congress has never conducted a comprehensive review of safety in the military. To read The Globe's series, visit their Web site at www.boston.com. -BY Context: According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, 17 civilian C-130s have been destroyed in accidents since 1986; 11 have been fatal crashes; three involved "unspecified failure" of multiple engines.In the past 10 years, 14 Air Force C-130s have crashed; 11 have involved fatalities.10,985 U.S. aircraft accidents occurred between 1991 and '95. Only 195, or 1.8 percent, were unsolved, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.The Pentagon Inspector General recently praised the Air Force, saying its "safety investigation boards are staffed with the technical expertise needed to accurately determine causes of aircraft mishaps."The Pentagon Inspector General found that whistleblower Alan Diehl raised "valid key procedural and systemic concerns" about Air Force safety probes, according to Defense Week magazine.In 1992 dollars, the C-130 cost $22.9 million. The new-generation C-130J costs $59 million in 1997.An Oregonian editorial admonished the King-56 widows for criticizing the Air Force. "The Air Force has conducted two good independent investigations," The Oregonian said; however, one probe was secret and, according to Air Force spokeswoman Karole Scott, the paper had not requested the other.Lockheed-Martin is headquartered in House Speaker Newt Gingrich's district. L-M's political action committee has "given thousands to his campaigns on top of corporate donations to tax-exempt foundations allied with the GOP leader," according to The Wall Street Journal.On Capitol Hill, the term "C-130 math" refers to the fact that Congress has bought 10 times more C-130s than the Pentagon requested in the last decade.