A little after 7 am on 27 November, 2004, Lt. Colonel Michael McMahon and Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan boarded a small twin-engine airplane in Bagram, Afghanistan. The plane, which also had a cargo of 400 pounds of mortar illumination rounds, was operated by Presidential Airways, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Blackwater USA. Grogan was an experienced pilot assigned to the 3rd Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment (the 3/4 Cav). McMahon was the 3/4ths commanding officer. At around 7:30, the plane stopped on the taxiway and a third passenger, 21-year old Specialist Harley Miller (also assigned to the 3/4 Cav), boarded the flight. The plane then departed Bagram for Farah, where the 3/4th was based.
Prior to takeoff, the crew informed the tower that they’d be taking off and heading to the south, flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level. Immediately after takeoff, however, the plane turned to the northwest. The flight left radar coverage shortly thereafter, still traveling on a heading other than the one that they had announced. The flight never arrived in Farah. Approximately 45 minutes into the flight, the airplane hit the side of a mountain at an altitude of approximately 14,650 feet above sea level. Five of the six people on board apparently died on impact. The sixth passenger, SPC Miller, survived the impact. He stepped outside the wreckage at least twice, unrolled a sleeping bag, and smoked a last cigarette or two before finally dying, alone on the mountainside in the wreckage while search parties scoured the wrong valley, at least ten hours after the crash as a result of a combination of his injuries, hypoxia, and hypothermia.
The transcript taken from the voice recorder gives some indication of why this crash might have happened.
PILOT: I hope I’m goin’ in the right valley.
CO-PILOT: That one or this one?
PILOT: I’m just gunna go up this one.
CO-PILOT: Well, we, we’ve never or at least I’ve never done
PILOT: We’ll just see where this leads.
CO-PILOT: Yeah this is fun!
PILOT: We’re not suppose to be havin’ fun though.
PILOT: No fun allowed god-(expletive).
CO-PILOT: It’s supposed to be all work we can’t enjoy any of it.
CO-PILOT: Cause we’re getting’ paid too much to be havin’ fun.
PILOT: You’re god-(unintelligible) right.
MECHANIC: I don’t know what we’re gonna see, we don’t
normally go this route.
MALE PASSENGER: (expletive).
PILOT: All we want is to avoid seeing rock at twelve o’clock.
CO-PILOT: Yeah you’re an x-wing fighter Star Wars man!
PILOT: You’re (expletive) right.
PILOT: This is fun!
PILOT: Okay, it’s about time we’re gunna start climbin’ I do
PILOT: Okay we’re comin up to a box up here.
PILOT: Yeah I think this valley might peter out right up here.
CO-PILOT: Yeah it shows us ah you got about twelve I don’t
know thirty miles of ah higher altitude, then there’s
another valley in the general direction that we’re going.
PILOT: Yeah, peters right on out.
PILOT: It was good while it lasted.
PILOT: Yeah. It’d be nice to get a real good through my MP3
player in here.
CO-PILOT: (expletive) yeah.
CO-PILOT: That’ll be great.
PILOT: Phillip Glass or somethin’ suitable new age’y.
CO-PILOT: No, we gotta have butt rock that’s the only way to
go. Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister.
PILOT: Well let’s kind of look and see if we’ve got any
where we can pick our way thru. Doesn’t really matter it’s
gunna spit us out down at the bottom anyway.
PILOT: Let’s see find a notch over here.
PILOT: Yeah, if we have to go to fourteen for just a second
it won’t be too bad.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Whoa, whoa!
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: There you go.
CO-PILOT: Boy, it’s a good thing we’re not too heavy today I
PILOT: Yeah, oh, I wouldn’t have done this if we were at gross.
PILOT: We can always turn around up in here.
CO-PILOT: Yeah we could we could do a one eighty here if we
PILOT: Come on baby, come on baby, you can make it.
MECHANIC: Okay, you guys are gunna make this right?
PILOT: Yeah h-h-I’m hopin’.
MECHANIC: Hope we don’t have a downdraft comin’ over that, dude.
(Sound similar to stall warning tone single beep)
MECHANIC: Got a way out?
PILOT: We we can do a one eighty up in here.
MECHANIC: Yeah, I’d pick one side or the other to… ah.
PILOT: Drop a drop a quarter flaps.
MECHANIC: Okay, yeah, you’re… ah.
CO-PILOT: Yeah let’s turn around.
PILOT: Yeah, drop a quarter flaps.
MECHANIC: Yeah you need to–ah–make a decision.
(Sound of heavy breathing starts)
PILOT: God (expletive)!
MECHANIC: Hundred, ninety knots, call off his airspeed for
(sound similar to stall warning starts and continues until end)
PILOT: Ah (expletive, expletive)!
MECHANIC: Call it off, help him out, call off his airspeed
for him (unintelligible) butch.
CO-PILOT: You got ninety-five.
PILOT: Oh God!
PILOT: Oh (expletive)!
MECHANIC: We’re goin’ down.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: God!
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: God!
(End of recording: 0350:00, 7.50 a.m. local time)
The NTSB identified a number of other factors that contributed to the crash. The Blackwater flight crew, in addition to the “X-wing pilot” crap, and in addition to getting lost, and in addition to being more concerned with the proper soundtrack than the proper heading, also committed a few other errors. The largest of these was probably their failure to use their supplemental oxygen while playing their games in the wrong valley.
Yup. You read that right. The aircraft in question was not pressurized, and it was being flown at altitudes well above 10,000 feet. According to the NTSB report, pilots are required to use oxygen if they are between 10,000 and 12,000 feet for 30 minutes or longer, and at all times if they’re above 12,000 feet. The floor of the valley was at 11,000 feet; the airplane struck the mountain at almost 15,000 feet; and there was no evidence on the voice recorder that the pilots used their oxygen masks at all.
At altitudes over 10,000 feet, humans frequently begin to suffer some of the more subtle effects of hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). One of the most notable of these is impaired judgement. It’s not possible to determine whether or not the pilot and copilot were suffering from these symptoms (particularly since their judgement appears to have been impaired to begin with), but the fact that the mechanic needed to prompt the pilot to make a decision and the copilot to call out the airspeeds as the plane approached stall speed suggests that this might have been the case.
In addition to all this, the cowboys shouldn’t have been flying the mission in the first place. Based on the company’s own standards, at least one of the pilots should have been flying in the theatre for more than one month. Neither had. In addition, neither of the pilots had flown the route before.
The pilot, copilot, mechanic, and two American soldiers (both pilots themselves) died as a result of this series of completely avoidable errors. SPC Miller was seriously injured by this series of mistakes, but his death was the result of another series of mistakes by Blackwater.
Due to chronic communications problems – the planes only had unreliable satellite phones to communicate with – the plane wasn’t reported as missing until it was several hours overdue. Once it was reported as missing, the military initially began searching in the wrong place – Blackwater told them where the plane should have been, but did not have exact information even for that route. As a result, the crash site wasn’t located until well after Miller had finally passed away.
The deaths of everyone onboard, including the US soldiers, was clearly the result of pilot error and negligence on the part of Blackwater, according to the NTSB. Blackwater has not, so far, taken any responsibility for their actions. The families of the soldiers are suing Blackwater, at least in part because Blackwater never offered them so much as an apology. Blackwater’s response to the suit was to claim immunity from lawsuits based on the doctrine that prevents active duty soldiers from suing the government for injuries sustained in the line of duty. (Apparently, nobody bothered to inform them that they really aren’t part of the government.) The 11th Circuit just rejected that argument, so the suit is going to continue.
During last week’s Congressional hearing, Congressman Waxman questioned Blackwater CEO Eric Prince about the incident. His response really has to be heard to be believed.
WAXMAN: Mr. Prince, one allegation raised recently about Blackwater’s actions is that your contractors have acted irresponsibly. One senior US Commander told the Washington Post, quote, they often act like cowboys, unquote. Let me ask you about that crash of Blackwater Flight 61. In this case, did Blackwater’s pilots act responsibly, or were they, in the words of the US commander, acting like cowboys?
PRINCE: I disagree with the assertion that they acted like cowboys. They, um, we provide a very reliable, valuable service to the Air Force and the Army in Afghanistan. Any time you have an accident, it’s an accident. Something could have been done better. It is not… it is not a Part 135 US-type flying operation. There’s no flight services, there’s no flight routes, there’s no navaids. It is truly rugged,Alaska-style bush flying.
Actually, according to their contract, Blackwater was obligated to comply with the Part 135 regulations.
WAXMAN: Well, the investigators said – from the National Transportation Safety Board – that Blackwater Aviation violated its own policies by assigning two pilots without adequate flying experience in Afghanistan. According to the military report, it was your policy, Blackwater policy, that required at least one of the pilots to have flown in theater for at least a month, but neither pilot had flown for that long, and neither had flown the route that they were assigned that day. This is clear in the cockpit voice recording right after takeoff, when the Blackwater captain said, quote, “I hope I’m going into the right valley.” The first officer replied, “This one or that one.” The captain then apparently guessed which valley to fly, saying, “I’m just gonna go up this one.” The flight mechanic later observed, “We don’t normally go this route.” Why didn’t Blackwater follow its own policies and team new pilots with more experienced ones? Why did you have two inexperienced pilots together?
PRINCE: I’m not qualified to speak to the experience level of the pilots. I will tell you that we were operating under military control. In fact, the aircraft was set to take off with two passengers onboard, but they turned around for the lieutenant colonel, who boarded late. There was also, uh, it violated, umm, the military violated its policy by loading both ammunition – that aircraft was also flying with a large number of illumination mortar rounds – and they’re not supposed to mix pax and cargo, but again we followed our customer’s instructions. Yes, accidents happen. We’ve provided thousands and thousands of flight hours of reliable service since then. Today, still, we’re flying more than a thousand missions a month.
According to the contract, Blackwater had the final say on whether the flight flew, and had the right to cancel missions if there were safety concerns. It’s probably not a good idea to fly passengers and ammo on the same flight, but the NTSB found absolutely no evidence that the mixed cargo had anything to do with the crash. They were also not flying under “military control.” The military told them what needed to fly where and by when, and Blackwater was reponsible for handling the rest.
Blackwater negligently killed three American soldiers, and wrecked the lives of three families. Their response: “accidents happen.” They have not seen fit to accept any responsibility. Prince went so far as to claim that the crash was the result of pilot error, but that there was no corporate error involved.
It just goes to show the level of respect our contractors have for the men and women they’re supposed to be supporting.