Controller cleared mistaken attack by Navy pilot, officials say

Wednesday, March 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Questions about the bombing range accident in Kuwait that killed six people are focusing on whether blame rests with the Navy pilot who dropped the bombs or the air controller on the ground who was responsible for directing the strike, or both, defense officials say.

The pilot, an experienced squadron commander, had received the go-ahead from a U.S. forward air controller who then called out ``abort, abort'' in a belated attempt to wave off the misplaced strike.

U.S. officials speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity said the controller told the pilot as he approached, ``Cleared, hot,'' which is an unambiguous instruction to release the bombs. Seconds later, apparently realizing a mistake had been made, the controller called, ``abort, abort,'' but it was too late.

It was not clear whether the controller was among those killed.

The U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for American military operations in the Persian Gulf area, appointed a three-star general to lead an investigation.

The father of an Army sergeant killed in the accident said Wednesday he is not interested in placing blame, but wants officials to concentrate on fixing problems that lead to training accidents.

``There's a problem somewhere in our training and I think we need to find out what the problem is and get it solved before we lose more people,'' Mike Freligh of Gosnell, Ark., said on CBS' ``The Early Show.''

He suggested there has been too much carelessness in training, ``but I am also in hopes that with the new administration, things will change. ... I want to know that the training these people are getting is good training and that there is a lot of safety involved. There's too many accidents happening and it starts at the top. The unfortunate thing is that innocent people are being killed. ... There's a cancer somewhere in the system. We've got to find out the cure and get it fixed.''

Freligh said he does not think the pilot of the plane that dropped the bombs should be held accountable. ``I feel very, very much grief for the pilot of this plane and I'm not looking for blame,'' he said. ``What I'm looking for is a solution to the problem.''

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday he did not know in detail the sequence of events that led to the fatal accident Monday evening at the Udairi training range in northern Kuwait.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed sympathy for the families of the victims and pledged to find out how the accident happened. It marked the third calamity for the Navy in recent months. Following the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in October, the attack submarine USS Greeneville accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat off Hawaii on Feb. 9, killing nine Japanese.

Quigley said a Navy F/A-18C Hornet, launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf as part of a multinational exercise dubbed ``Desert Spring,'' dropped two or three 500-pound bombs on an observation post that was used by forward air controllers.

Five Americans at the observation post and one New Zealand army major were killed, he said. Three other people were seriously injured, one evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. The other two were in Kuwaiti medical facilities and will be taken to Germany when they are able to travel.

The key question that remained unanswered by the Pentagon on Tuesday was why the bombs struck the observation post instead of the intended target.

The Pentagon identified the Hornet pilot as Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, who commands the VFA-37 Hornet squadron aboard the Truman. The squadron is home-based at Oceana Naval Air Station, Va.

Zimmerman had flown a daylight and nighttime mission at Udairi three days earlier. He has more than 3,000 Navy flying hours.

Quigley said he did not know what sort of target designator was in use at the time of the accident.

Officials familiar with such ``close air support'' missions said Tuesday that normally the forward air controller on the ground would have used an infrared device that the Hornet pilot could spot. The pilot would enter into an on-board computer an ``offset'' _ a measurement for how far from the infrared signal the bomb should land. If the ``offset'' was not entered into the computer, the bomb would be released at a point that would direct it toward the infrared source _ in this case the observation post.

It is possible that the forward air controller was using a laser to designate the target, but officials said they believe this was unlikely.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason M. Faley, a tactical air controller with the 19th Air Support Operations Squadron based at Fort Campbell, Ky., was identified as one of the dead.

The four other Americans killed were members of the Army. They were identified Tuesday as Staff Sgt. Troy J. Westberg from Mankato, Minn., a medical sergeant assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C; Staff Sgt. Richard N. Boudreau of Florida; Sgt. Phillip M. Freligh of Nevada, and Spc. Jason D. Wildfong of West Virginia. Home towns were not provided except for Westberg's. Boudreau, Freligh and Wildfong were explosive ordnance disposal specialists assigned to the 707th Ordnance Company at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Acting Army Maj. John McNutt, 27, was identified as the New Zealander killed.