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WüRZBURG, Germany — The pilots of an AH-64A Apache helicopter were flying too low over unfamiliar terrain at night when they crashed into a thick cable strung between two hilltops in Kosovo, according to an Army investigative report on the June 8, 2003, accident.

The fiery crash of aircraft No. 473 near Novo Brdo, 12 miles north of Gnjilane, killed the two pilots from Company C of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment: Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew Robbins and Warrant Officer 1 Devon DeSouza.

The investigative team, led by Maj. Shawn Allen of the headquarters staff of the 1st ID’s aviation brigade, attributed the accident in part to the too-heavy burden placed on Robbins, the senior pilot.

Robbins had been charged with training his brand-new co-pilot while carrying out a long, complex mission at night while flying a route he didn’t know.

In the clinical language of the investigation’s list of findings, the report said the pilots’ chain of command had “allowed [Robbins] to bear a high level of training burden, which ultimately exceeded [his] ability to manage mission risk and avoid known man-made hazards to terrain flight.”

In short, he was too busy and made a fatal mistake.

Experienced pilot

Robbins, 41, had been one of the battalion’s most experienced pilots. He had flown Army helicopters since 1986 and was the company’s standardization and instructor pilot — the teacher for all the other pilots in the unit. He had racked up more than 2,800 hours flying helicopters, more than half of them in Apaches.

“He was more than just competent,” his friend and fellow Apache pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sean McNulty, told Stars and Stripes six weeks after the crash. “When you flew with him, you knew you were going to learn something.”

That is part of the reason why he had been paired with DeSouza, 29, a former Marine who was one of 1-1 Aviation’s newest pilots. Fresh out of training, he had flown just 56½ hours in Apaches, including his training.

Since arriving in Kosovo in early May, DeSouza had flown only about 10 hours. There was no record he had ever taken a required “local area orientation” flight, according to the report. He had logged only two hours using night-vision systems, and none in the previous 22 days.

The report said Robbins, “by virtue of [DeSouza’s] inexperience, assumed a high cockpit workload” on the patrol, noting that it took place in the final one-third of the duty day and the final 30 minutes of the flight.

According to transcripts of sworn statements by the two pilots of the second Apache (their names, like all names in the report except those of the deceased pilots, were removed from the report by an Army censor), the two helicopters took off from Camp Bondsteel about 9:30 p.m. on what one pilot described as “a clear night with perfect weather.” Their mission was to fly over and videotape 20 locations of interest in the American zone of Kosovo. No. 473 flew in front, the second aircraft, No. 470, trailed.

Earlier, during daylight, another team had flown the same route. They briefed the night pilots on possible hazards, but neither Robbins nor DeSouza had ever flown it before.

Near Novo Brdo, the day pilots had noted twin towers on two adjacent hills, apparently part of a local mining operation. Several wires stretched between the towers, and an ore bucket one of the pilots described as looking like a gondola hung from one. He later told investigators he had warned DeSouza about them, and watched the young pilot mark them on his map.

Robbins, DeSouza and the two other pilots finished filming targets south of Bondsteel, then refueled at the base and headed north. After flying over Novo Brdo, the two Apaches headed to the next target.

As they headed into a hilly, wooded area about 1:15 a.m., Robbins and DeSouza banked left, with No. 470 about 10 rotor lengths behind. Suddenly, one of the trail pilots saw a plume of light through his night-vision goggles. The other saw pieces of debris fly toward him and the lead aircraft plunge to the ground.

The trail aircraft quickly rose to a safe height and tried to raise No. 473 on the radio. Then they called a ground team from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment as well as crash/rescue and medical evacuation teams.

It was too late. The lead Apache fell onto a dirt road and erupted into flames, its ammunition exploding. A fire truck left Camp Monteith at 2:20 a.m. and reached the scene 53 minutes later, according to an Army Criminal Investigative Division report. Firefighters doused the flames with 2,000 gallons of water.

Flying too low

As the unit grieved and the families buried their dead, investigators reviewed flight documents and interviewed other pilots.

In their sworn statement, the pilots of the trail aircraft denied dropping below the minimum altitude of 300 feet during the flight.

But Allen reviewed the video in No. 470’s onboard camera. It captured Robbins and DeSouza’s aircraft during the first 65 minutes of the flight as well as the post-crash fire, but not the crash itself. The video showed No. 473 had flown too low at least three times during that hour, once as low as about 160 feet.

Allen measured the height of the four wires, and the highest was 238 feet. The hanging ore bucket lay on the ground near the wreckage.

The sworn statements of 1-1 Aviation pilots showed a unit stretched to its limits. The 1st Infantry Division’s scheduled yearlong peacekeeping tour had been extended by three months because of the demands of the Iraq war. Its three six-aircraft Apache companies rotated through Kosovo for intense three-month tours.

One pilot told investigators there simply weren’t enough crews to allow pilots to fly both daytime reconnaissance and nighttime missions and still get their proper crew rest.

Allen completed his investigation, called a “collateral report,” later that month. After a review by the division’s senior leadership, it was cleared for public release last October. But a request for the document by Stars and Stripes to the division’s public affairs office made last August went unanswered, apparently lost as 1st ID prepared for its deployment to Iraq.

The request was renewed through V Corps in May and released by the division’s Staff Judge Advocate in mid-June.

Allen’s report made several recommendations to 4th Brigade leaders, including enforcement of the 300-foot minimum altitude, requiring an orientation flight for pilots new to Kosovo, limiting the number of targets on a given flight, and barring pilots without experience on night-vision systems from flying on real-world missions.

The unit had only a few weeks to implement them. Company C returned from Kosovo July 24, approaching its home field at Katterbach, Germany, in the traditional “missing man” formation. Before they left, they held a ceremony renaming the airfield at Camp Bondsteel in memory of Robbins and DeSouza.

“We missed them on the way home,” Capt. E.J. Irvin, Company C’s commander, said in a short welcome-home speech at the time. “We felt them with us in the cockpit. They were there in spirit.”

The investigation

The investigative team, headed by Maj. Shawn Allen of the 1st Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade headquarters staff, issued a series of “findings” and “recommendations” following an investigation into the fatal crash of an AH-64 Apache near Novo Brdo, Kosovo, on June 8, 2003. They included:

Findings

• The aircraft crashed after striking cables that were less than 300 feet above the ground, the minimum altitude for en-route flight in Kosovo. The crashed aircraft descended below 300 feet at least three other times during the flight.

• The co-pilot gunner, Warrant Officer 1 Devon DeSouza, had not received a mandatory “local area orientation” briefing, which focuses on terrain hazards, between his arrival in Kosovo and the crash.

• Pilots flying the route during the day had failed to pass along critical information about en-route hazards to the night crew.

• DeSouza had almost no experience flying under night-vision systems at the time of the crash.

• The mission assigned was too much for one two-aircraft team to accomplish.

• The pilot-in-command, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew Robbins, had too much burden in being required to simultaneously train DeSouza and carry out a complex, intense mission.

• The pilots relied too heavily on Global Positioning Systems and not enough on maps with marked hazards.

Recommendations

• Take “command action” to prevent pilots from flying below the 300-foot minimum altitude.

• Require a “local area orientation” flight for all newly assigned aviators in Kosovo.

• Comply with guidelines requiring a daytime reconnaissance flight and a formal debriefing session before a night mission.

• Bar aviators with no experience using night-vision systems in Kosovo from flying on operational missions.

• Limit “must-have” reconnaissance targets to six per 2½-hour fuel load.

—Source: Paraphrased from Collateral Investigation, AH-64 Apache Aircraft #8700473 Crash at Novo Brdo, Kosovo, 8 June 2003.

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