Airmen failed to wear seatbelts, helmets in fatal wreck outside Kuwait base, Air Force finds
Speed and the failure to follow safety regulations were factors in the death of a 26-year-old U.S. airman, who was killed in September during a rollover wreck of an armored vehicle outside a Kuwait air base, an Air Force investigation determined.
None of the three Air Force Security Forces airmen inside the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV, were wearing helmets or seatbelts, when the driver lost control of the 28,000-pound vehicle, flipping it over and ejecting Senior Airman Jason Khai Phan, an investigation board found. Phan, who was seated behind the driver, was killed instantly in the Sept. 12, 2020, wreck near the end of a 12-hour security patrol just outside Ali Al Salem Air Base, where he and the others were deployed.
“It is a tragedy any time we lose an airman, and this accident highlights the dangers our members who serve face daily in the defense of our nation,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Maureen Banavige, who presided over the Ground Accident Investigation Board that investigated the incident.
In Banavige’s report, which was released Monday, she found the M-ATV appeared to be in good condition and was properly maintained at the time of the wreck. The M-ATV is the smallest of the U.S. military’s MRAP-class vehicles. It seats four and is outfitted with five-point harnesses for all four personnel in the vehicle and so-called “combat locks” — heavy latches that ensure the doors stay closed even during an incident, such as a rollover.
Phan’s door — and likely the vehicle’s other doors, according to investigators — was not combat locked when the vehicle flipped, Banavige wrote in her report. Like the failure to use seatbelts or wear helmets, it was a breach of Air Force regulations, which require combat locking of tactical vehicles when they are in operation in Kuwait.
The Air Force board did not pinpoint the precise cause of the wreck, but indicated the driver — a 26-year-old Air Force staff sergeant — was almost certainly speeding when she lost control. She and the truck commander — a 27-year-old senior airman — had only qualified to drive the hulking armored vehicle one day prior to the incident, the Air Force said. Typically, Security Forces airmen had used smaller, lighter trucks for security patrols around the base, but following an unspecified threat at the time, commanders decided they should use the heavier trucks for security.
The three service members, assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, were about nine hours into their shift and the vehicle was traveling on an “unpaved but hard-packed road of rock and sand” just to the west of Ali Al Salem when the driver reported the vehicle was pushing to the right.
The driver told investigators that it felt “as if the truck was getting stuck in sand.” She steered it toward the left and continued to press on the gas to keep the truck from sticking. But, investigators found, she lost control of the M-ATV, which swerved down the road for 100 to 200 yards, entered a skid and rolled all the way over, forcing the rear, driver’s-side door open and ejecting Phan. The truck eventually landed on the driver’s side and the driver and truck commander escaped through the turret on top of the M-ATV.
The driver and truck commander suffered minor injuries — including mild traumatic brain injuries — and were treated and released from medical care that day, according to the report. First responders declared Phan dead at the scene of the wreck.
The driver told the safety board that she was uncertain how fast the vehicle was traveling at the time of the wreck. But investigators determined the truck must have been traveling at least 43 mph, far faster than the 19 or 20 mph speed limit for sandy roads outside the base’s gates.
An audible alarm sounded in the truck and at least one dashboard light flashed as the driver lost control of the vehicle, she told investigators. The alarm and flashing light were likely an “overspeed indicator,” which comes on in the range of 35 and 45 mph, investigators wrote.
A commander at Ali Al Salam interviewed by investigators said he was uncertain whether the speed limits, which were not posted on dirt roads outside the post, were properly relayed to airmen. However, investigators wrote, an Air Force training slide from the unit warns that the M-ATV should never be driven more than 25 mph “no matter where it is operated.”
Investigators also noted they found some indication of a cultural issue with airmen failing to wear their seatbelts in tactical vehicles at the base, including some who indicated they and others would buckle their seatbelts behind their back to avoid audible seatbelt use warnings.
Phan of Anaheim, Calif., deployed from his home station at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to Kuwait in July to support Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission battling Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, defense officials said at the time of his death. He was set to begin training as a military working-dog handler in Texas upon his return from Kuwait, according to the Air Force.