Faulty equipment, lapsed training, repeated warnings: How a preventable disaster killed six Marines
By ROBERT FATURECHI, MEGAN ROSE AND T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | ProPublica | Published: December 31, 2019
Capt. Jahmar Resilard and Capt. Austin Smith were hurtling over the Pacific Ocean at 280 miles per hour. From inside the cockpit of their U.S. Marine Corps fighter jet, they kept their eyes on the hulking fuel tanker flying ahead. Off to their right, two Marines in a second jet assigned to Fighter Attack Squadron 242 did the same.
The moon was below the horizon. The lights on all three aircraft were turned off. In total darkness, 50 miles off the coast of Japan, the two jets were to stick their noses into fuel hoses trailing behind the tanker’s wings.
Even for the most prepared aviators, the training mission was not simple. Doing it at night made it even trickier. The night vision goggles fastened to their faces badly constricted how much they could see, like wearing binoculars to operate heavy equipment.
It didn’t help that Resilard had only executed a nighttime refueling once before in his career, more than a year earlier. His qualification to do so had formally lapsed, but no one realized it because a known glitch in the Marine Corps’ training tracker had yet to be fixed.
Resilard gained on the tanker, a behemoth capable of carrying more than 12,000 gallons of fuel. He connected gingerly to the hose.
“Good flow,” Smith assured him from the backseat of their cockpit.
The second Hornet had connected to the tanker’s other fuel hose. As the gas poured in at a rate of hundreds of gallons a minute, the three Marine Corps aircraft turned a wide, careful oval inside the safety of their approved airspace.
The December 2018 flight was part of a week of hastily planned exercises that would test how prepared Fighter Attack Squadron 242 was for war with North Korea. But the entire squadron, not just Resilard, had been struggling for months to maintain their basic skills. Flying a fighter jet is a highly perishable skill, but training hours had been elusive. Repairs to jets were delayed. Pleadings up the chain of command for help and relief went ignored.
“Everyone believes us to be under-resourced, under-manned,” the squadron’s commander wrote to his superiors months earlier.
And now, in perhaps the world’s most volatile theater, a Marine Corps general had ordered up a rushed set of exercises. The aviators in the air over the Pacific, investigators later found, had been given so little time to adjust their sleep schedules in order to fly at night that inside their F/A-18D Hornets that night it was as if they were legally drunk.
“Don’t have a good feeling,” Capt. James Wilson, the pilot of the second Hornet, had texted to his wife before taking off that night. “Love you.”
Smith, Resilard’s weapons officer, had flown so little of late that he was getting nauseous when he did fly. On the night of the refueling, he’d violated regulations and taken a motion sickness pill, risking drowsiness.
But both Hornets managed to refuel and disconnect without incident. Success felt close. They just had to safely separate. The mood over the radio was light.
“If you guys will go ahead and start a left turn to the middle of the area, we will give you a little show on the way out,” Wilson said to the tanker crew.
“F--- yeah,” one of the tanker pilots replied.
Then, suddenly, Resilard’s Hornet drifted over the top of the tanker and to its right, a dangerous and unexpected maneuver.
It’s possible Resilard’s night vision goggles malfunctioned. They were a known menace. In fact, they were so problematic — the image could blur, even accidentally turn upside down — that the Air Force had recommended they not be fielded at all. The Marine Corps did so anyway.
“Oh … sheeitt … what are they gonna do?” the tanker pilot, still excited, said over the intercom, unaware Resilard was in danger.
Then Resilard corrected back. For 11 seconds, his jet dove down and to the left, straight for the tanker. One of the Marines in the second Hornet tried to radio a warning to Resilard but fumbled in activating the communications line.
The jet lanced the side of the tanker; the impact was shattering. Smith slammed into his Hornet’s canopy. He instantly yanked the ejection handle, activating the rockets under his and Resilard’s seats. The force of being launched out into the night sky ripped the helmet and goggles off Resilard’s head.
From the cockpit of the second Hornet, all Wilson could see below him was fire. He watched the burning tanker fall for 10 seconds. At 12,000 feet, it disappeared into a thick marine layer. The clouds glowed red. Five Marines were fatally trapped on board. All that could be heard over their intercom was wind whipping in and men hollering.
His parachute deployed, Smith began a 15,000-foot fall. He shot off flares into the night sky hoping someone would see, pausing when he passed through a freezing layer in the sky and his hands went numb. He struggled unsuccessfully to get his steel-toe boots off before he hit the water.
Falling 800 feet per minute, Smith and Resilard splashed into the Pacific. Smith was bruised, and he was shivering, but his head bobbed above the water and the reflective tape on his helmet could help rescuers spot him.
Resilard, who had landed far from Smith, was in worse shape. Blood was pooling on his brain. But he was active and conscious. He had a wristwatch, the kind runners use to keep track of distance traveled and calories burned. It showed Resilard’s pulse was strong, over 100 beats per minute.
Rescuers should have been on the way.
Smith’s location beacon failed in the water, but he got his radio to transmit his location.
Resilard had less luck. Injured, cold, he couldn’t get his radio to work. He couldn’t punch in the broadcast sequencing right. While the radios can be configured to transmit coordinates automatically, the Marine Corps had chosen not to adopt the practice.
Resilard’s circumstances only worsened. His location beacon had also malfunctioned in the water. The Marine Corps’ senior leadership knew the beacons were flawed but hadn’t replaced them.
After a deadly mishap involving a beacon two years earlier, Squadron 242’s commander tried to remedy the problem by getting replacements. But weeks before the crash the Marine Corps ordered a halt to their use because they were not officially authorized.
In the sky, the Marines on the second Hornet tried to help, radioing their Japanese allies and asking for rescue aircraft. It was all but futile.
Years earlier, the U.S. had struck an agreement giving responsibility for the search and rescue of American forces in the region to the Japanese military. The American commanders who’d ordered up the December training mission, however, were unaware of one wrinkle: The Japanese would only be available to help in emergencies if their forces were also actively training.
That night in December, the Japanese were not. Help, if it could make it, was hours away.
At 68 degrees, the sea water was not immediately lethal. But hypothermia would eventually set in.
Three hours after the crash, Smith and Resilard were still waiting. Smith had managed to inflate his raft and climb in. Resilard could not pull himself into his but did his best to cling to it. His watch showed his heart was still beating around 86 times a minute — more slowly than earlier, but clear evidence he was alive.
Dawn was coming. Maybe the light would help.
“Nobody Is Getting Off”
Fighter Attack Squadron 242, based in the Pacific, was part of what the U.S. military called its “Fight Tonight” force. If hostilities broke out, the squadron would cross quickly into North Korean airspace, equipped to hit Pyongyang’s missile batteries. Failure could result in hundreds of thousands dead in South Korea’s capital.
The loss of life in a relatively routine training exercise, then, was a bruising blow to the Marine Corps. And there were, in late 2018, no shortage of reasons the Marines would want to look long and hard at the full circumstances behind the tragedy.
The Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan along with the squadron, had seen 17 sailors killed in back-to-back accidents the year before, painful embarrassments that would ultimately be traced to years of ignored warnings about a crisis in training, manpower and machinery. Aviation accidents were also on the rise, and Squadron 242 had been involved in one of them: a 2016 near-disaster involving an unqualified pilot taking part in a similar nighttime refueling. The fighter jet sheared off part of the tanker’s refueling hose, barely avoiding a full-on collision.
In Washington, Congress was beginning to openly question whether American commanders in the Pacific were being honest about the preparedness of their forces.
The Marine Corps promised to spare no one in its investigation of the December 2018 crash, and Col. Samuel Schoolfield was named to lead the probe.
In meeting with members of the squadron, Schoolfield said he understood the fear among aviators that they could be made fall guys.
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Schoolfield told one squadron member. “I’ve had some really tough conversations with people my rank and higher. … Nobody is getting off.”
Schoolfield, however, went right after the squadron, months later issuing a withering, and often personal, judgment of their character and commitment. Schoolfield deemed the members of the squadron to be cowboys, operating within a command climate of “gross unprofessionalism.” Schoolfield cited “excessive alcohol consumption,” issues with drugs and adultery. The squadron’s use of “sexually explicit call signs” was typical of the debauched environment, Schoolfield asserted.
There were, to be sure, mistakes uncovered by Schoolfield that had to be answered for. Lt. Col. James Compton, the squadron’s commander, had failed to make sure a senior officer was on duty the night of the refueling, a standard safeguard against rash decisions. As a result, on the night of the accident, it had been left to Wilson, the senior pilot, to agree to a late request from the tanker crew to do a midair refueling. Wilson, for his part, never relayed the hastily added change in plans to Compton.
Schoolfield was also troubled by Wilson having proposed a “show” of some kind after the refueling had taken place. While the accident happened before Wilson ever performed whatever flourish he had in mind, Schoolfield found his idea reckless and traceable to the squadron’s leadership. Compton and his senior aides had “created nonchalant attitudes towards safety and standardization.”
But members of the squadron found Schoolfield’s assertions about their drinking and personal lives to be irrelevant, even dishonest.
The prescription drugs he accused the Marines of seeking were “go/no-go pills” — sleep and stimulant medications aviators are commonly prescribed when forced to work fatigued.
Schoolfield slammed two of the aviators involved in the crash for having Ambien in their systems that night, falsely suggesting it played a role in what happened, even though blood and urine tests showed trace amounts that the Marine Corps determined couldn’t have impaired the men.
The case of adultery he revealed was an infidelity involving a Marine with no role in the crash.
Schoolfield’s report, though, would be the final word. He’d made that clear to those he’d interviewed.
“Like we talked about this morning,” he told one aviator, “this investigation is the one that goes into the official record.”
Schoolfield’s investigation, completed in June 2019, was released to the public and to the media.
The families of the dead Marines received personal briefings on his findings. Some of the parents reacted with anger and disgust toward the Hornet squadron.
Compton, who had been relieved of his command before the announcement of the Schoolfield report, read the findings with disbelief. He’d accepted his fate, conceding he’d made mistakes and to some degree failed his squadron.
But Schoolfield’s official report, he believed, was a whitewash, a cynical effort to protect senior commanders and thus to mislead the families of the lost Marines.
Compton had warned higher command for months the squadron was at risk. In dozens of memos and emails, he’d detailed problems with training, equipment and morale. He’d run the numbers showing how distinctly disadvantaged the squadron was, with senior positions unfilled and basic parts for the safe and regular operation of its planes unavailable.
“We’re doing a disservice to the families and to the nation by sweeping this under the rug,” Compton said.
“Has Anybody Flown During This Time of Night Before?”
Compton took over Squadron 242, the Bats, in May 2018, six months before the crash. As a young aviator, Compton had flown with the Bats when the squadron was supporting the war in Iraq. He was in flight school on 9/11, and almost immediately after getting his wings he was thrust into around-the-clock, high-tempo combat missions. He’d actually flown the Hornet, Profane 12, Resilard was in the night of the accident.
But the squadron he was given command of in Japan was unrecognizable to him, full of Marines who had been neglected by their Corps bosses for years. The squadron members, demoralized, ached not so much for the thrill of action on the front lines but to be anywhere else.
“They were not happy with their existence,” Compton said. “They wanted nothing to do with fleet life, which to me was very strange.”
In repeated, consistent memos in the months that followed, Compton alerted his direct superiors and higher headquarters of the myriad issues, including the squadron’s morale.
The reports Compton sent up the chain of command showed the squadron was consistently not capable of completing seven of its 10 “mission essential tasks,” the core functions of a fighter jet squadron. Among the tasks they couldn’t handle if war broke out: armed reconnaissance, when jets fly deep into a battle space seeking out enemy targets to strike, and air interdiction, traveling into enemy airspace to bomb a known target. Both missions would be crucial to containing a North Korean attack.
Compton sent updates on the squadron’s staffing, breaking down the number of Marines needed in each department and at each experience level compared with how many the squadron actually had. They had more junior Marines than they needed but consistently fell short for more senior posts. Their maintenance staff was the most inexperienced of any F/A-18 squadron in the Marine Corps. In some months, less than a third of their 13 Hornets were “mission capable.”
Personnel shortfalls in the maintenance department slowed the repair of jets, resulting in fewer training hours for aviators. Compton’s pilots had averaged 9.4 hours of flight time in one month, and his weapon systems officers just 3.7 hours. The Marine Corps recommended monthly minimum is 15.7 hours.
He laid out the dismal metrics in writing to his direct boss, Col. Mark Palmer.
“Thanks good update,” Palmer wrote back.
Compton was at a loss.
“It’s either ignoring it, or basically negligence, or basically an inability to do anything about it,” Compton said.
That summer, relations between the U.S. and North Korea were whipsawing. After months of fiery rhetoric, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un finally met for their summit in Singapore, shaking hands and expressing a vague commitment to denuclearization. But within weeks, North Korea was back to its bellicosity, accusing the Trump administration of a “unilateral and gangster-like demand” that the country disarm its nuclear arsenal. Kim was refusing to shut down his nuclear weapons facilities or to allow inspectors in. In fact, intelligence reports were showing he was quietly expanding the sites.
In this environment, the Bats were sent off for three months of exercises in Australia. Things only deteriorated. Their shipment of spare parts and other cargo didn’t arrive for a month. In an update to his bosses, Compton complained of the “heinously” late delivery, saying it contributed to a 40% reduction of training.
The Bats were counting on seven smaller parts shipments as well, but they only got two. They had to beg their Australian counterparts for tow bars, tugs, lubricants, generators and other spares. Or they cannibalized parts from jets in the shop to make their other jets whole.
Compton’s updates grew more desperate.
“The squadron aircrew’s monthly flight time has gotten dangerously low,” he wrote. “To maintain the level of combat readiness that our nation deserves, the number of qualified Marines must increase.”
In late fall of 2018, the Trump administration called off the United States’ annual military exercise with the South Koreans, citing the need for diplomacy at a critical moment. The Pentagon said canceling the war games exercise might “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.”
Despite the president’s decision, Maj. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the top Marine Corps aviation commander in the region, nonetheless abruptly ordered up a week of around-the-clock flights for a handful of squadrons, including 242.
The decision took Compton by surprise, and his unease about the state of his squadron deepened.
“I didn’t think that our leadership would basically say, ‘We don’t care what the president thinks, we’re going to execute anyway,’” Compton later told investigators.
Weidley’s decision — to carry out a more limited, but still aggressive, version of the annual exercises — left little time to plan the squadron’s missions.
Compton, and commanders for other participating squadrons, struggled to understand the orders that eventually were passed down. The plans called for too many flights per day, officers involved said, and missions so long they violated Marine Corps protocols. On the eve of the exercise, details as basic as where the planes would be landing, which requires host nation approval, had yet to be finalized.
Maj. Patrick Moran, one of Compton’s aides, left a meeting with higher command “with such confusion that I felt like I had reached exhaustion.” He emailed Compton, “We just don’t have clear tasking/training objectives.”
With days left before around-the-clock operations launched, Compton split his squadron into morning, afternoon and night shifts. He was most concerned about the daytime hours because flight plans were still fluid, and decisions about their intricacies still needed to be made. He thus assigned all of his highest ranking officers to those shifts, and none to the night shift, the most dangerous.
Even in daylight, flying a fighter jet taxes the body and mind. The G-force at high speeds sucks blood down to the legs, starving the brain of oxygen. To pump blood back to their heads, pilots pulse the muscles in their lower halves. Bands around their legs that inflate like blood pressure cuffs help. Meanwhile, they’re manipulating the pitch, yaw and roll of their planes with measured, practiced movements of their hands and feet, while simultaneously monitoring their instrument panels and calculating their next moves. Fatal mistakes happen quickly.
Flying in the dark can be even more demanding. Marine Corps protocol recommends pilots flying nights be given up to four weeks to adjust their sleep schedules. Compton’s Marines were given just a few days.
Wilson later recounted his reaction to getting assigned the night shift: “You’ve got to be f---ing kidding me.”
Wilson was hand-selected to lead the late team. He had flown night sorties over Iraq and was considered one of the Bats’ most seasoned pilots. But he had flown just four hours in the last month, a quarter of the minimum time needed to be truly capable. The night plans gave him pause.
Wilson huddled with the other Marines assigned the late shift, 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“Has anybody flown during this time of night before?” he asked.
Nobody raised their hand.
“I Can’t See Anything but the Fire”
On Dec. 6, Wilson and Resilard were set to start their engines for the first of the week’s night flights just after midnight. Their initial objective was quite limited: Their two Hornets were to take off, “burn holes in the sky” to gain some much-needed flight time and land.
But just a few hours before takeoff, the Bats got a call from a tanker squadron looking to rendezvous for a midair refueling. It was a more complicated mission and wasn’t on the Bats’ flight schedule.
Wilson approved the addition without calling Compton, his commanding officer. He sped through a preflight brief, then he led the men to the airstrip.
On the walk to their Hornets, Wilson made one last admonishment. He noted that two years earlier, Capt. James Frederick, a friend, was killed while flying an F/A-18C during a training exercise in the same airspace. Frederick’s wife was pregnant at the time with their second child.
“That was my way of saying, hey, keep your head on a swivel, you know, stuff happens,” Wilson said.
Resilard, for his part, tried to stay upbeat. He was enthusiastic about getting some training in.
“I’m all about the flight time, man,” he told his squadron mates.
Resilard was piloting the second Hornet, Profane 12. He was an inconsistent aviator. Weeks earlier, Resilard landed short of a runway and into the wrong set of steel cables that help stop a jet upon touching down. The incident could have been catastrophic if the cables hadn’t happened to be bidirectional. His squadron mates christened him with a new call sign, ALIBi, short for “Am Lucky It’s Bi.”
Resilard was said to work hard, but he was afforded little opportunity to improve. That year, he was averaging just over half the minimum recommended monthly flight time. His qualification for refueling at night had lapsed. But a glitch in the Marine Corps’ tracking system was erroneously displaying pilots as qualified for skills they hadn’t been tested on for a year or more.
In the air shortly after midnight, Resilard and Wilson watched as the tanker went dark. It flipped on its covert lights, invisible to the naked eye.
Through their night vision goggles, Wilson and Resilard, flying in formation, could see the hulking aircraft and little else. The tanker, a KC-130J Hercules named Sumo 41, was operated by two pilots and three enlisted aircrew. Two long, flexible refueling hoses extended back from pods mounted under each of the tanker’s wings. A heavy funnel is attached to each tip, keeping the hoses steady and level, like two water skiers being towed behind a boat.
Their approved airspace, off the southern coast of Shikoku, Japan, was a rectangle, roughly 40 miles wide and 90 miles long.
Wilson disconnected first. He elevated more than a hundred feet above the tanker and shifted off to its right side.
Standard procedure would have called for Resilard, once he was done refueling, to join Wilson on the tanker’s right side and depart from there. But Wilson called an audible and directed Resilard to stay left. The tanker crew was unfazed.
“That’s approved,” Maj. James Brophy, the tanker’s lead pilot said over the radio.
The next 90 seconds proved fatal.
Wilson made his boastful promise of a “show.” Concerned he was pressed too far up against the border of the airspace to his right, he asked the tanker to shift left, sending it away from him and closer to Resilard.
The Marines on the tanker didn’t know what Wilson had planned, but they were fired up.
“Are they gonna f---ing burn by both of us on each side?” Maj. Kevin Herrmann asked over the intercom.
“Dude, I was about to ask, like, can they do something cool like we used to? Nobody does that shit anymore.”
“Never,” Brophy agreed.
“I f---ing like it guys,” Herrmann said. “Excited.”
Then one of the three enlisted crew members, standing watch from the left window of the tanker, noticed Resilard drift over them.
“12 moving over the top from left to right,” he said over the tanker’s intercom.
What caused Resilard’s drift is not known.
Resilard had been positioned above the tanker and to its left. He had been inadvertently pressing his right rudder all night — a sign of stress — and counterbalancing with his flight stick. It’s possible that when the tanker, still in covert lighting, shifted left and underneath him, he lost sight of it, panicked and stopped fighting the rightward creep.
Another possibility: After Resilard had finished refueling, the tanker pilot asked for Resilard’s jet ID for invoice purposes. That number is displayed inside the cockpit near Resilard’s right knee. If you look right, you can inadvertently go right, particularly in the dark without other points of reference.
Whatever the cause, no one alerted him to his dangerous drift.
Smith, sitting behind Resilard to help guide the flight and man the weapons systems, saw their Hornet passing over the tanker. It filled the field of view on his night goggles. Fatigued and drowsy from Dramamine, Smith didn’t recognize it was a mistake. He stayed quiet.
Through the darkness, Wilson’s weapons officer, Capt. Paul Keith, could make out the silhouette of Resilard’s Hornet. His wings were waggling like he was struggling to regain control. Keith looked down at the scale in his cockpit to orient himself, then looked back out. He realized Resilard was slicing their way.
Resilard’s Hornet was now in the middle, with Profane 11 to its right and the tanker to its left. Then, Resilard headed back toward the tanker.
“What the f--- is he doing?” Keith shouted.
Smith, confident they were a safe distance from the tanker even as they hurtled toward it, looked the other way, at the Hornet on the right. When his Hornet hit the tanker, Smith said it was “the most violent thing that I have ever felt in my life.”
Smith pulled the ejection handle, initiating an overwhelming force that can crush vertebrae. He did not warn his pilot beforehand as he was supposed to, so Resilard wasn’t in proper position to eject. His helmet was stripped off and his night vision goggles ripped away.
Smith’s escape was smoother. The left side of his body was banged up, but he was OK. He began descending in his parachute under the tanker.
From the cockpit of his Hornet, Wilson saw the sparks from the ejection rockets. He hit the afterburners, nose high, shooting up and away from the crash. Still climbing, he made a sharp turn back over the burning tanker. He looked down.
Even 3,000 feet away, the flames were so overwhelming he thought they’d scorch his jet.
“My goggles are completely bloomed out,” he said. “I can’t see anything but the fire.”
For 10 seconds, Wilson saw the flaming wreckage glide down.
Hanging from his parachute, Smith’s descent was slow. Not a strong swimmer, the first thing he did was inflate his life vest.
He screamed for help. He saw a light down in the water — maybe a boat. He shot off one of his small flares. No response.
Descending in the dark, he hit the water without warning. His life vest held. He inflated his raft, then pulled himself aboard. With each swell, ocean water poured in. Soaked, and some 50 miles out at sea, Smith was shaking.
Up above, as they soared over the crash site, Wilson and Keith struggled to radio for help: “MAYDAY. MAYDAY. MAYDAY.”
Six minutes later, they radioed again, looking for confirmation that rescue aircraft and boats were being launched.
Another 10 minutes passed. A flight controller asked them to confirm which aircraft were down.
“Profane 12 is in the water. Sumo 41 is in the water,” Wilson responded.
After four minutes, the control center radioed back “to confirm there was a collision between Profane 12 and Sumo 41?”
Six more minutes passed. No sign of help. Wilson again asked for an “update on search-and-rescue assets.”
He was told they should be coming.
By 2:27 a.m., 40 minutes after the first call for help, Wilson still saw no sign that help was on the way. He tried the radio again: “Status of search and rescue.”
They hovered high over the crash site for roughly 90 minutes. With his gas running low, Wilson dipped below the cloud layer and began searching himself.
“My hands were shaking,” he remembered. “My stomach was in knots.”
“We Now Have to Live With the Repercussions”
While the Schoolfield report became the official public word on the December 2018 crash, it wasn’t the only inquiry conducted by the Marines. Per protocol, a safety board was convened to conduct a confidential examination of the accident and any issues of responsibility and leadership it raised.
What witnesses divulge in safety investigations cannot be used to discipline or prosecute them, freeing them to be more candid. A warning printed on the safety reports reminds military personnel that releasing the information is a crime. The safety inquiry into the fatal accident involving Squadron 242 included interviews with rank-and-file Marines, commanders in both the attack and tanker squadrons and the senior officers in the two commands above 242.
ProPublica reviewed the safety report. It, like Schoolfield’s findings, details the flight crew’s missteps the night of the crash.
But the safety investigation also paints a damning picture of high-level culpability and systemic dysfunction. It includes issues entirely unmentioned by the official report. In a startling compendium of failings, senior leaders make admissions about their own lapses and give alarming assessments about the state of Marine Corps forward-deployed forces.
The report said the leaders of the Marine Corps’ aviation units in the Pacific had created a dangerous culture in which safety issues were routinely brushed aside. In the unit’s day-to-day operations, raising safety concerns “is like the boy crying wolf.” “Risk is accepted with the mindset that this is ‘just the way things are’ or we ‘just make do with what we’ve got,’” it said.
Saying no to unsafe orders accomplishes little, the report found: “The lower echelon gets asked to find another way to mitigate the risk. The mindset becomes, ‘Higher HQ wants this to happen; therefore, we’ll find a way to make it happen.’”
That damning conclusion — front-line warning being thwarted by top-level commanders — echo the findings of ProPublica’s investigations into the 2017 tragedies involving the 7th Fleet’s two destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain. The destroyers were involved in fatal accidents months apart, and the Navy was quick to portray them as the result of negligence by sailors on the two ships. ProPublica’s reconstructions of the accidents, however, showed that uniformed and civilian Navy leaders at the highest levels had been alerted for years that the sailors and ships of the 7th Fleet were in crisis: undertrained, overtaxed and starved of the time and parts required to operate the country’s most versatile warships.
With the 2018 accident over the Pacific, the safety board investigation found that the two commanders above Compton’s squadron — Palmer and Weidley — were both “fully aware” of the Bats’ shortfalls. And that those shortfalls were reported up to “higher headquarters on a regular basis.”
There was “no evidence that senior leaders in the chain of command responded to” Compton’s warnings “with any additional or supplementary support.”
The safety board questioned the management of resources across the Marine Corps and its “Fight Tonight” force.
“The least experienced maintenance department in the active fleet should not be the maintenance department of a forward deployed Fight Tonight squadron. The opposite should be true,” the report stated. “The forward deployed force should be resourced to sustain the best readiness posture the service can provide — not the worst.”
The limited ability of junior mechanics assigned to the Bats by the Marine Corps grounded planes and limited flight training hours, which the report said can be “tied directly” to the “dangerously low” proficiency of the four Hornet aviators involved in the crash.
The report revealed that these same manpower problems were raised by a previous safety board, looking at a January 2016 mishap, and “the recommendation to address this problem was accepted by every level of command.”
Nonetheless the shortfalls continued: “Senior leaders are not unaware of these factors. Yet senior leaders have allowed this under resourced condition to continue unabated.”
The decisions about resources and “the acceptance of elevated risk levels associated with them have become institutionalized in the force,” the report found. “Consequently, warnings go unheeded at multiple levels of command, hazards continue unmitigated, and controls remain unimplemented.”
The report confirmed that Palmer’s command did not give the involved squadrons a clear sense of what they were being ordered to do and failed to properly assess how risky the missions were. Palmer’s command was also short-staffed and overworked, forced to attend to other duties while simultaneously planning around-the-clock operations.
“Planners and decision makers cannot analyze risk well when they do not have time to think,” the report said.
Flight training for the Bats had been steadily declining since 2013, and they were given the least training hours of any F/A-18 squadron during the most recent fiscal year: 1,920 hours of flight time compared with the Marine Corps’ average of 3,189. The safety board described it as “dangerously low” and “a staggering deficit for a deployed squadron.”
For several consecutive years, the Bats were given fewer flight hours than the Marine Corps’ own published minimums to maintain basic proficiency.
One reason for the lack of flight time: Their planes were in bad shape. The Marine Corps minimum for the percentage of a squadron’s fleet that should be mission capable in a given month is 75%. They only met that rate once in the previous year and in the two months before the crash hit their lowest rates: 26% and 30%.
“Hazards caused by low aircraft readiness were highlighted” in a 2014 report about poor pilot proficiency, the safety board noted.
The safety report pointed out other mistakes the Marine Corps failed to learn from.
The glitch in the Marine Corps’ system for training tracking, which erroneously showed Resilard as being qualified to handle night refueling, was also previously cited in a past safety report.
In 2016, the same Hornet and tanker squadrons suffered a similar incident during a nighttime refueling. The Hornet pilot in that incident turned into the tanker and sheared off a portion of the fuel hose. No one was hurt, but the Hornet came within 10 feet of the tanker, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic crash.
In that case, the same glitch with the Marine Corps’ training tracking system also showed the pilot was qualified for night refueling when he wasn’t. In both 2016 and 2018, the qualification tracking system showed the pilots as “green” for the mission because they had done a similar exercise during the day. Logging the day code as completed erroneously refreshed the night code.
The correction to the system was never made.
The commander of the tanker squadron, writing to the board, was infuriated.
“It is difficult to fathom that a near similar incident occurred a mere 2½ years ago between the same two squadrons and yet little to no action was taken to rectify the issue,” the commander wrote. “Repeating errors is undesirable in any line of work but is absolutely unacceptable in aviation.”
The review also found that the rushed nature of the exercises in December had compromised the skills of already undertrained aviators. The inability of the night team to adequately adjust sleep schedules had left Wilson, Resilard, Smith and Keith so impaired by fatigue that it was as if they were flying with a blood alcohol level well above the legal driving limit.
Senior leaders were allowed to review the report and share their thoughts. Each of them criticized the decisions made by Compton, his officers and the flight crew involved in the crash. But they were also brutally candid about the perilous state of Marine Corps aviation at large, describing the weaknesses in stark terms rarely heard in public.
The commander for the tanker squadron, which lost five Marines in the crash, was unsparing.
“In an (area of operations) where the mantra of ‘Fight Tonight’ is repeated everywhere,” Lt. Col. Mitchell Maury said, referring to the Pacific, “we are not manned, trained, and equipped to execute to the appropriate level of effectiveness.”
“This concern has been reported repetitiously to higher headquarters,” he said, including to the Marine Corps’ commandant, its highest-ranking officer, and the Navy secretary, the top civilian leader. “Forward deployed units are consistently hindered by a lack of experienced personnel and the result is decreased readiness and increased risk.”
He warned of the “extreme risk” involved in forcing Marine aviators to “do more with less” and called on other leaders to “have the moral courage to step up and refrain from executing when the risk outweighs the reward,” otherwise “more tragedy will ensue.”
He blamed the deadly crash on a “failure to adjust” after previous mishaps.
“We now have to live with the repercussions,” he said.
Weidley wrote the longest response. He acknowledged that the squadron had been short-staffed and under-trained. “None of these gaps,” he said, “are news. All have been highlighted in readiness reports to higher headquarters.”
But he devoted much of his response to reiterating the mistakes made by the Bats and their flight crew: Compton’s failure to assign senior officers to the night shift, the use of unauthorized medications, the unapproved change to the flight plan, Wilson’s rushed preflight brief and the unusual order he gave Resilard to depart from the left side of the tanker instead of the right.
Both he and Palmer, he wrote, told squadron commanders “to not exceed what safely could be done” during the week of exercises. “Naval aviators are trained to have the courage to say no when things aren’t right,” he wrote, suggesting the Bats did not have that courage.
None of the safety board’s findings have been made public. No changes to Schoolfield’s report have been made. The families, who were given Schoolfield’s findings, were given no idea of the extent to which the safety board blamed top leadership failures for the deaths.
“Why, Why Can’t We Find Capt. Resilard?”
As a boy, Jahmar Resilard was in awe of Will Smith’s character in the movie “Independence Day”: a black F/A-18 pilot slugging aliens and saving the world. It had been tunnel vision for Resilard after that. He was going to be a Marine Corps pilot.
Now, hours after being ejected from his own F/A-18, Resilard was alone in the dark, bobbing in the Pacific, trying to stay alive.
Resilard’s head was exposed to the elements. His helmet had been ripped off as he ejected, and with it the reflective tape that rescue aircraft might see from above. His left jawline was badly bruised, and trauma to his neck left him at risk of paralysis.
He took out his flares and his strobe light. From his life vest, he removed a pouch of fluorescent green dye. He pulled the tab, releasing the thick pigment into the sea water — a marker for rescuers.
But his ability to move was diminishing. Unable to pull himself into his raft, he was at risk of going under.
Smith, in his raft, pulled off one of his steel-toe boots. He used it to bail water.
Smith had liked flying with Resilard. The two had an easy rapport. Resilard wasn’t like other pilots, Smith thought, too proud to admit when something wasn’t right. Despite Resilard’s struggles as an aviator, Smith had total confidence in him. He was a pro, someone Smith would fly with again in a heartbeat.
And Smith was certain Resilard was floating somewhere nearby.
The scramble to rescue Resilard and Smith had been painfully problematic. The Americans responsible for coordinating rescue with the Japanese did not even have contact information for their Japanese counterparts handy.
It would not be until 4:06 a.m. — two and a half hours after the crash — that the first Japanese UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter took off from Hamamatsu Air Base, more than 200 miles away.
“It would probably surprise the American public to know there are not any American search-and-rescue people on standby for a multitude of forces deployed on mainland Japan,” said Compton, who followed the search for his men that night from their ready room on base. “It’s all totally dependent upon the government of Japan. We found out the hard way.”
Of the Japanese, he said: “They are not in their squadrons ready to walk to an airplane when they hear a call. No, they’re at home. They’re at home having to drive into work, figure out where to go, fire up an airplane and get out there.”
At 5:43 a.m., a Japanese helicopter finally found Smith in the water. A rescue craft had passed him earlier, its spotlight even hitting his raft, but the crew had apparently missed him.
This time the chopper hovered overhead. A diver descended into the water, swam over to Smith and attached him to a hoist. Smith tossed the boot he’d been bailing water with into the sea.
Smith told the rescuers Resilard was still in the water.
“I 100% expected us to fly right over to him and pick him up, and me and him to be sitting in that helicopter. A hundred percent. If you would have asked me that, I would have probably been like, yeah, he’s right there. I mean, we ejected out of the same aircraft, right?”
“They shouldn’t be that far apart,” Compton said. “The ejection sequence is only like a third of a second apart. The winds and conditions would be very similar, so you’re thinking, ‘Got to be here somewhere close.’ From that point on, it’s a race against the elements and time, and just your ability to survive whatever it was that you just went through, which in this case was a pretty catastrophic collision. Any extra time is too much time, bottom line.”
But Resilard was not quickly discovered.
“It was like, why, why can’t we find Capt. Resilard?” Compton said.
The answer proved enragingly obvious. His location beacon failed in the water.
Senior leaders knew that model of location beacon was flawed. It had malfunctioned in at least two prior mishaps, including the crash two years earlier in which Wilson’s friend, Frederick, was found dead in the same waters. Other squadrons had a better model. But the Marine Corps did not issue replacements for the Bats. And so their commanding officer obtained a commercial brand of beacon available to hikers and hunters for the squadron, but the Marine Corps ordered they not be used during an inspection a few weeks before the crash because they were not authorized by the Corps.
With no beacon to help find Resilard, rescue aircraft searched fruitlessly.
Resilard had been scheduled to go home for Christmas. He was bringing his girlfriend. The two met when he was stationed in San Diego. When he got his orders to deploy to Japan, she packed up and moved with him. She was the first girlfriend he ever told his family about. They had just gotten engaged but were waiting to share the news over the holidays. There would be much to celebrate. Jahmar’s older sister was expecting and due to give birth around the time of his visit.
At 10:46 a.m., nine hours after the crash, a Japanese Coast Guard ship finally spotted him. In the water, Resilard was either exhausted or he’d lost consciousness. His arms had slipped below the waterline. But his watch indicated he was still alive.
The crew on the ship, however, wasn’t able to get him out of the water. The waves were too strong and the ship’s deck too high to safely pull him in. The ship crew called in a helicopter.
At 11:27 a.m., a Japanese SH-60 Seahawk hovered overhead.
It was now almost 10 hours since the crash.
Resilard’s watch showed his heart was still beating.
The helicopter crew determined it couldn’t pull him up. He was unresponsive and tangled in his gear. His body was wrapped in the lanyard connecting the seat pan to the inflatable raft.
They called in another ship.
At 11:30 a.m., Resilard’s heart stopped beating. He had drowned.
It took almost another hour for the crew of the second ship to pull his body aboard.
In the months after the December 2018 tragedy, Compton stayed in charge of Squadron 242, but he had little concrete assurance that he wouldn’t ultimately pay with his job.
He accepted that possible outcome. What happened under his watch was his responsibility. He could have been more blunt in his warnings. He could have pounded the table, threatened to resign if the squadron didn’t get the help it needed. He knew his Marines were poorly trained. He could have flatly refused flying at night. And some of the bad behavior Schoolfield uncovered implicated him. Compton’s WhatsApp profile photo was a selfie he took in midair, hardly the image of a leader strictly enforcing the rules.
But he also knew the problems went well beyond his failings. At a memorial for the six Marines who had gone to their deaths, he sensed some hope. Weidley, his superior, encouraged him to let him know what staffing gaps the squadron needed filled.
Compton asked for six experienced aviators and four seasoned mechanics. He got one pilot, called up from the reserves, and one weapon systems officer. Both were assigned only temporarily.
In March, things had not improved, and Compton once more wrote to his superiors that a shortage of trained aircrew “continues to be a major concern.”
“I implore higher headquarters,” he wrote, “to ensure we receive qualified personnel.”
The next month, Compton, while in South Korea, was summoned along with his three top aides to Marine Corps headquarters in Japan. They were to be relieved of their positions. Compton was not surprised by his impending firing, but the idea that his aides would be punished along with him was crushing.
The night before flying to Japan, Compton got himself a hotel room in Seoul. He said he stood on his 14th floor balcony and considered jumping. If he killed himself, he thought, perhaps the commanders would rethink the punishment of his aides.
“I’m not proud of it,” Compton said. “It’s a very weak thought, a very weak thing. But my mind went there.”
Weidley, who failed to act on Compton’s months of warnings, lit into Squadron 242’s leader before dismissing him.
“Marines deserve nothing but the best leadership, and it’s clear that you’re not delivering that, therefore effective immediately, I’m relieving you of command,” Compton recalled Wiedley saying. “You will remove your personal effects from your office in the squadron under the cover of darkness. You will say nothing to anybody until I’ve made the announcement.”
ProPublica sent the Marine Corps a lengthy set of questions about the accident, the Schoolfield report and the secret safety review. We also reached out directly to Schoolfield and the Marine personnel cited in the various reports and documents.
The Marine Corps called Schoolfield’s command investigation “thorough” but acknowledged that Schoolfield was wrong in suggesting that the trace amounts of Ambien in the aviators’ systems had impaired their abilities.
“Ambien use did not play a role in the mishap though the language of the command investigation can be read to suggest otherwise,” the spokesperson said.
The Marine Corps declined to answer a number of questions from ProPublica about revelations within the safety investigation, asserting that disclosing such information is a crime. The Marines requested ProPublica not report its contents, saying it would have a chilling effect on future safety investigations, but ProPublica found that the public interest in the issues involved outweighed those concerns, as the documents revealed systemic problems and ongoing safety risks.
The report is still being reviewed up the chain of command, the Marines said, and is not yet final.
Because the findings are supposed to be secret, investigators are encouraged “to speculate, opine, analyze and make recommendations that may or may not be fully supported by facts,” the spokesperson said, declining to provide any examples of inaccuracies.
The Marine Corps said it had taken steps to improve conditions for the Bats. The training tracking system that incorrectly showed Resilard as qualified for nighttime refueling has been fixed. The squadron is scheduled this month to get a new flight simulator. Marines are being sent to the squadron for three-year tours, instead of two, to increase experience levels.
To improve coordination during emergencies, U.S. and Japanese forces conducted a search-and-rescue training exercise this year. The Marines have also been running their own internal rescue exercises.
The Marine Corps said it does not plan to replace the malfunctioning seat beacons, a spokesperson said, but will instead be “leveraging several funded initiatives in place to improve the beacon’s reliability, including antenna extension kits and water-activated passive signaling devices.”
The spokesperson defended the model of night vision goggles the Bats were assigned, saying it “provides significant benefits, such as increased situational awareness and expeditious sensor cueing.”
“Aviation safety is a top priority for the Marine Corps,” the spokesperson said. “Investigating ourselves when mishaps and other events occur is vital to helping us identify issues that create unsafe conditions.”
The Marine Corps has launched a new review of the crash, the spokesperson said, that could result in additional discipline.
To date, no one above Compton has been disciplined.
Palmer, identified in the safety report as having been fully briefed on the dangerous state of Squadron 242 for months before the accident, earned a new position in a directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the body of top military leaders that advises the president and defense secretary. He was awarded a legion of merit medal, reserved for officers who exhibit exceptional performance.
Weidley is now the assistant chief of staff for the U.S. military’s unified command in South Korea. At his change of command ceremony this year, he said “there is no more ready, no more lethal, no more rehearsed combat wing on this planet than 1st MAW,” referring to his command, which he said “is always ready to respond and always ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Palmer, Weidley and Schoolfield declined to comment for this article.
Compton said the three surviving Marines from the 2018 accident had their actions reviewed. Wilson was told he would not fly again, and he left the Marines. Smith was also stripped of his flying privileges, but he for now remains with the Marine Corps in Japan. Keith had to undergo retraining but is again flying with the Bats.
The three could either not be reached or would not speak publicly about the incident and its consequences.
ProPublica asked the Marine Corps to provide data to show improvements in Squadron 242’s staffing, training and ability to execute basic missions in war. The Marine Corps did not. Asked whether 242’s deficiencies posed a threat to national security, the Marine Corps spokesperson declined to comment, citing “operational security reasons.”
There are signs, however, that the situation remains dire.
The documents from the safety investigation indicated that even in the months after the crash, inexperienced maintenance staff “continues to have substantial negative impact on aircraft readiness.”
“Yet this condition remains unabated,” the report stated.
It also found that “to the time of this investigation,” flight training hours “continued to be well below fleet averages and insufficient to meet the (Marine Corps’) published minimums to sustain aircrew readiness.”
The families of the six dead Marines have become close, sharing in the grief of losing sons, brothers, husbands. Some have been vocal about their anger with the Marine Corps.
“The families have been lied to,” said Todd Ross, whose son was killed on the tanker. “They not only lied to us, they lied to everybody.”
“If they’re not willing to take full responsibility for the actions of their command, and those underneath you, and are trying to pawn that off on somebody else just to keep your skin, then you’re violating every form of decency there is,” he said.
Resilard’s sister, pregnant at the time of the accident, had to be induced early because of the trauma from her brother’s death. Caring for her newborn son has been a welcome distraction, she said. But it’s impossible to escape the grief.
“He looks like just Jahmar,” she said.
Today, Compton is back in Billings, Montana, near where he grew up and where he has now started a new career as a financial advisor. He spoke at length with ProPublica in recent months.
Compton said he regularly is jolted awake at 2 a.m., the hour when the crash occurred.
“Almost without fail,” he said. “It just happens.”
“The hard reality is that this unit under my watch was not prepared for combat,” he said. “Because we could not do a basic thing. That’s hard. That’s a hard reality to face.”
“I do blame myself and I’ll always blame myself,” he added. “The only reason I’m talking now is because I’m not convinced that we’re going to change anything.
“The United States Marine Corps, an organization which I loved and had devoted my life to, I want to make sure that it learns from this tragedy. It has to.”
“The only thing preventing another thing like this from occurring is, frankly, luck. And what that means to me is that people are going to die that don’t need to die.”
How we reported a deadly Marine Corps accident
We set out to reconstruct the December 2018 crash between two U.S. Marine Corps aircraft flying off the coast of Japan. We wanted to understand what went wrong in the air that night, resulting in the deaths of six Marines, and what went wrong up the chain of command in the months and weeks before the tragedy.
We interviewed current and former Marine Corps and Navy officials, as well as the family members of those who were killed. We reviewed thousands of pages of internal Marine Corps records, including emails and memos, an unredacted version of the official investigation released to the public, and a separate confidential investigation that was intended to be hidden from public view. Interviews were conducted on both coasts and in Billings, Montana. To better understand the crash, we designed a 3D animation of the three aircraft involved and their motion relative to one another in the minutes before the incident. We provided the Marine Corps with a lengthy list of questions, many of which they declined to answer. ProPublica attempted to contact those mentioned by name in this story and other significant participants in the incident. To reconstruct scenes and dialogue in the narrative, ProPublica used official transcripts, contemporaneous emails and interviews with the people quoted or eyewitness sources.
The following people contributed to this story: Katie Campbell, Nate Schweber, Joe Singer, MacGregor Campbell, Lucas Waldron, Matt Huynh, Alicia DeWitt, Joe Singer, David Owen Hawxhurst, Lucas Waldron, Micah Kovacs and Doris Burke.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
Read this story in its original version at the ProPublica website.