Pilots in friendly fire incident charged
Date: Friday, September 13 2002
Topic: International News
OTTAWA (CP) - Two American pilots involved in the bombing that killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have been charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault after a military report concluded their account of the incident was bogus.
Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach, both members of the Illinois Air National Guard, were charged in the April incident which also wounded eight other Canadian soldiers. Schmidt dropped the fatal 225-kilogram bomb; Umbach was his flight commander in charge of the mission.
Please see below for facts and quotes
The full reports of two military investigations into the April bombing - one by the Canadian Forces, the other a joint Canada-U.S. effort - were released Friday with minor deletions for security and privacy reasons.
They mirrored in greater detail summaries released in June, which blamed the two F-16 pilots.
The joint report said the pilots acted with "reckless disregard for the foreseeable consequences" of their actions.
It also says their commanding officer, Col. David C. Nichols of the 332nd air expeditionary group, should be disciplined for poor leadership.
The dead soldiers - Sgt. Marc Leger, Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, Pte. Richard Green and Pte. Nathan Smith, all of the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry regiment - were taking part in a night live-fire exercise when the laser-guided bomb landed in their midst.
Their families have been waiting since the tragic April 18 incident for the final report and word of what will happen to the pilots.
Joyce Clooney, Green's grandmother, said charges against the pilots are unimportant to her.
"I don't want (Schmidt) to go to prison," she said from her home in Bridgewater, N.S. "I just want him to not be able to fly planes again, not carry bombs and to admit that he was at fault and the innocent fellas, they weren't killed by the enemies."
"As long as he loses his career, then surely his conscience will take care of the rest."
Smith's father welcomed the charges against the pilots.
"All I'm saying is that people have to be held accountable for their actions or else the system fails," said Lloyd Smith. "And I think that's what our sons were over there and died to do, to protect the rights and freedoms we have."
The Canadian inquiry, led by retired general Maurice Baril, rejected the pilots' claim that they were acting in self-defence against a perceived threat from ground fire.
The report said there was nothing in their behaviour or in their radio calls to suggest they felt threatened.
"Neither aircraft was flown as if there was any threat below," Baril's report said. In fact, it added, the pilots flew "in a calm and relaxed fashion" as they inspected the ground.
The pilots made no effort to leave the area of apparent danger, took no defensive action and in the last minutes before the bomb fell, made no reference to ground fire or missile tracks.
Schmidt said he felt Umbach was in danger, a claim the report flatly rejected by pointing to the actions of Schmidt (call sign Coffee 52) and Umbach (Coffee 51).
"Coffee 51 remains at a safe altitude and distance from the threat throughout the entire incident," it said. "Furthermore, Coffee 51 is in visual contact with the ground fire, yet never demonstrates (through calls or manoeuvres) that he feels personally threatened."
Asked in an interview why he though Schmidt fired, Baril said: "That's the thousand-dollar question."
A transcript of radio calls that night shows that a monitoring communications plane twice warned Schmidt not to fire. The commander, a Canadian on an exchange mission, had a "hunch" there were friendly forces in the area and that there was no threat. But Schmidt's claim of self-defence overrode the controller's objections.
Just 33 seconds after Schmidt called bomb's away, the control plane radioed: "Disengage. Friendlies, Kandahar."
It was too late.
Baril said the pilots overreacted.
"What they described as a threat . . . was not very much of a threat to their airplanes," he said.
His report concluded: "A longer, more patient look from a safe altitude and range . . . should have confirmed that the threat observed was neither a direct threat to their formation or enemy activity of a significant nature."
Both reports said the pilots were tired after an all-night flight. Although both had taken Dexedrine to ward off fatigue, the joint report found that wasn't a factor.
Neither the F-16s nor the controllers were aware of the Canadian exercise. The reports recommended improvements in how information is passed on.
Umbach's lawyer David Beck said he's disappointed that criminal charges are pending because of an accident.
"Rather than rush to prosecute, I would urge to rush to find out completely what happened," he said from his office in Knoxville, Tenn. "We don't believe that they acted recklessly or in dereliction of duty."
"Maj. Umbach has a distinguished record and killing friendly forces was the last thing he could have imagined. It's just a tragedy."
Defence Minister John McCallum said he's satisfied with the reports.
Leon Benoit, defence critic for the Canadian Alliance, said the reports show serious flaws in U.S. procedures that much be fixed.
"They are the strongest military in the world, and they are very professional, generally speaking, but I think there's been a real lapse here," he said.
Some facts about the friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan that killed four Canadian soldiers and resulted in charges Friday against two American pilots:
WHAT: In early-morning hours of April 18, American F-16 pilot drops 250-kilogram bomb on Canadian soldiers conducting a live-fire night exercise.
CASUALTIES: Four Canadian soldiers killed; eight injured. First Canadian deaths in combat since the Korean War.
THE DEAD: Pte. Nathan Smith, 26, Ostrea Lake, N.S.; Pte. Ricky Green, 21, Mill Cove, N.S.; Sgt. Marc Leger, 29, Lancaster Ont.; Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, 25, Montreal.
INVESTIGATION: Art Eggleton, then Canadian Defence minister, announces the appointment April 18 of retired general Maurice Baril, former chief of defence staff, to head up an investigation; Americans launch parallel investigation.
INTERIM REPORT: Summaries of the two investigations are released June 28, both blaming the U.S. pilot for the incident and saying Canadian soldiers followed all proper procedures.
FULL REPORT: Full reports from both investigations released Sept. 13 with minor deletions for security and privacy reasons. The reports mirror in greater detail the summaries released in June, blaming the two U.S. pilots.
CHARGES LAID: Pentagon announces Sept. 13 that Maj. Harry Schmidt, the pilot who actually dropped the bomb, and flight leader Maj. William Umbach have both been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, eight counts of aggravated assault and deleriction of duty.
Some quotes on the investigation into the accidental killing of four Canadian soldiers by Americans in Afghanistan:
"Sending (the American pilot) to prison, that won't bring the boys back. As long as he loses his career, then surely his conscience will take care of the rest." - Joyce Clooney, grandmother of Pte. Richard Green who was killed in the bombing.
The two pilots showed "reckless disregard for the foreseeable consequences" of their actions. - Joint U.S.-Canada report.
"Neither aircraft was flown as if there was any threat below." - Retired general Maurice Baril in the Canadian military report.
"I support some type of a court martial in this situation. When they're in the war zone they're under military discipline and military law." - Garry Decaire, father of Cpl. Brian Decaire who was wounded in the bombing.
"I am satisfied that information released in the final report balances the need of Canadians to know what happened with operational security issues." - Defence Minister John McCallum.
"All I'm saying is that people have to be held accountable for their actions or else the system fails and I think that's what our sons were over there and died to do, to protect the rights and freedoms we have." - Lloyd Smith, father of Pte. Nathan Smith who was killed.
"Despite the initial misrepresentation of the live-fire exercise as a threat to their formation, there exists a series of related disturbing contradictions between their perceptions, their actions and accepted procedures." - The Canadian report on the pilots' actions.
"A longer, more patient look from a safe altitude and range, combined with a good knowledge of the airspace and the threat in the area should have confirmed that the threat observed was neither a direct threat to their formation or enemy activity of a significant nature." - conclusion in the Canadian report.
"Maj. Umbach has a distinguished record and killing friendly forces was the last thing he could have imagined. It's just a tragedy." - David Beck, lawyer for Maj. William Umbach, one of the pilots.
"They made a mistake, they're going to pay up. That's good. You just hope that maybe the next guy in line will be a little less quick to drop the bombs by mistake." - Warrant Officer Stuart McGunnigle from Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.
"The fact that it's being taken seriously across the border is important to us." - Capt. Tim Coderre from Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.
© Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press