TACOMA, Wash. — Army commanders on the ground and in the sky persuaded a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Air Force crew to continue running a July 2011 air drop exercise even after a flawed jump that had the airmen preparing to turn home, the air crew testified Wednesday.
Capt. Jared Foley, the Air Force commander of that mission, now faces 2½ years in prison on charges of reckless endangerment and dereliction of duty.
The Air Force accuses him of violating black-and-white regulations that order airmen to turn back or call a commander after a so-called off-drop zone landing. That occurs when a paratrooper misses a safe drop zone, a signal to service members that something is wrong with the jump plan.
Foley’s five-person crew from Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing notched one of those off-drop zone landings on their fifth pass over a Montana airfield with Special Forces soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard on July 10, 2011.
The paratrooper was fine. He steered himself to asphalt and raised concerns about increasing winds when he landed, he testified.
I said ‘We’re done,’” after the missed landing, Capt. Joy Zayatz, Foley’s co-pilot, testified.
The crew agreed and prepared to end the exercise, members testified.
But Foley and the crew changed their minds when an Army safety officer on the ground and a jump master in the sky blamed the missed drop on the jumper, Staff Sgt. Joshua McKee.
Both Army leaders encouraged the air crew to make another drop, the crew and one of the soldiers testified.
That decision turned fatal when Sgt. Francis Campion from Hollidaysburg, Pa., followed the path of the previous paratrooper who missed the drop zone. Campion struck a building and fell to his death when his parachute drug him off a slanted roof.
Prosecutors argued that Foley failed to follow clear Air Force regulations by giving the OK for the sixth pass over Marshall Air Field in Montana.
He should have ended the mission when the guardsman landed outside of the drop zone on the fifth pass, according to two separate regulations they displayed before a court-martial panel made up of 10 Air Force officers.
One states that after an off-drop zone landing, “the aircrew involved will not attempt another airdrop for the remainder of the mission.”
“Foley made a decision that made an already inherently dangerous mission even more dangerous,” prosecutor Capt. Kennard Keeton said in his opening argument.
Foley’s defense attorney countered that the pilot should not be judged with perfect, “20-20 hindsight.”
Instead, Capt. Sarah Carlson argued, Foley’s actions should be considered in the context of the circumstances he and his crew encountered.
The mission apparently got off to a bad start. The McChord crew was delayed leaving the South Sound on its way to an Ohio air base. It was delayed again on its way to Montana with the Special Forces paratroopers from the West Virginia National Guard.
Zayatz said she could not find the type of parachute the jumpers were using in two different manuals when she sought information to load into her plane’s mission computer. She found a similar-named parachute in the system and assumed it was the correct one.
She was mistaken, and the information changed the calculations of a computer system that helps determine the correct jump time for parachutists.
Later, Army soldiers on the ground gave the crew information about wind directions that conflicted with what they were tracking from a Helena air-control tower. It was a common mistake in communication, Zayatz said, because the Army and Air Force use different patterns in describing wind conditions.
Marshall Air Field reportedly was giving the Army trouble throughout that summer weekend. Staff Sgt. Mason Bruce-Kelsey of the Ohio National Guard remembered that a soldier was hurt on an off-drop zone landing the day before Campion died.
Bruce-Kelsey was the drop-zone safety officer on the day of Campion’s death. He testified that he reported the first flawed landing on the fifth pass, and that he told Foley the crew was clear for another run.
The jumper, he told the air crew, blew off course by steering his parachute with the wind instead of turning against it.
“The ground was good,” Bruce-Kelsey remembered reporting to the air crew.
That guidance convinced the air crew that the mistake on the fifth pass was not an official off-drop zone landing. That meant they could continue flying without even calling a higher-ranking Air Force commander.
“If it’s not an off-drop zone, you don’t have to call back; you don’t have to stop,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Alexander, a member of the crew.
Foley asked his crew if they were comfortable with another drop. They were.
So were the paratroopers on board.
The video shows Campion as the second jumper out of Foley’s C-17 Globemaster III. He’s the lightest soldier in the group, and his parachute seems to linger in the air longer than the others.
He hits the building and his helmet flies off. Trainers holding the camera shout in shock.
Campion’s relatives from Pennsylvania watched the video play three times in court Wednesday.
Foley’s court-martial is expected to resume today with defense witnesses.