Pilot got OK to drop bombs

U.S. air controller on Kuwaiti range then radioed `abort'

Cause for change unclear

Bombs hit observers, killed 5 U.S. soldiers and New Zealander

March 14, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A U.S. serviceman on the ground at a Kuwaiti military training range gave the go-ahead Monday for a Navy pilot to drop three bombs but seconds later radioed the pilot to "abort" the strike, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

But it was too late to prevent the three bombs from striking an observation post where the service member, known as a forward air controller, and other allied military personnel were assembled. The controller is supposed to guide the pilot to a target.

Details remain sketchy, and officials said they were uncertain whether the pilot or the air controller committed any errors that led to the accident.

The explosions killed four U.S. Army soldiers, an Air Force sergeant and a New Zealand officer. Seven other military personnel were wounded. Three of them - all U.S. servicemen - remained hospitalized yesterday, officials said, but their wounds are not life-threatening.

On Monday, U.S. military officials had said that only one 500-pound gravity bomb was dropped by the F/A-18 Hornet fighter, which was flying off the carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf. Yesterday, they said the pilot had dropped all three bombs his plane was carrying during a night training exercise at the Udairi range that involved Navy planes.

"Tragically, they hit near the service members at an observation post on the range," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

The U.S. forward air controller, who was not identified, also was at the observation post, though Quigley said he did not know whether the controller was among the dead or wounded or escaped unharmed.

The Navy identified the F/A-18 pilot as Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, 40, who commands the Hornet squadron based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va. Zimmerman has more than 3,000 Navy flying hours.

Killed were Army Staff Sgt. Troy J. Westberg of Wisconsin, Staff Sgt. Richard N. Boudreau of Florida, Sgt. Phillip M. Freligh of Nevada and Spc. Jason D. Wildfong of West Virginia; Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason M. Faley, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and a New Zealander, acting Army Maj. John McNutt.

Among the three U.S. servicemen still hospitalized, the only one identified yesterday was Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy B. Cruising of Fort Campbell, Ky. He is in stable condition, the Air Force said.

Quigley said he was uncertain whether the forward air controller had used radio or some type of infrared or laser designator to help guide the pilot to the target during the night exercise less than 30 miles from the Iraqi border.

The pilot and the controller were using night-vision goggles, he said.

"There are a variety of ways to do close-air support," Quigley said. "It can be voice, it can be laser, it can be infrared. Which ones were being particularly used here, I don't have that level of detail."

But another Pentagon official said the air controller had radioed the pilot with the coordinates of the training range. From 10,000 feet, the pilot began his dive. The controller located the aircraft and gave the pilot the go-ahead to strike the target, with the words, "Cleared, hot," meaning the pilot could immediately drop his bombs.

Seconds later, the forward air controller radioed "Abort" to the pilot, the Pentagon official said. But by then, the three bombs were heading toward the observation post.

The official said it was uncertain whether the mistake was the pilot's or the air controller's, and no reason was given for the controller's sudden shift in instructions.

The Pentagon official was uncertain whether the forward air controller used an infrared or laser designator to aid the pilot, beyond the radio contact.

If infrared, the controller would have waved the flashlight-like designator toward the sky to show the pilot his own position before pointing the light beam toward the target. If the target was not in his line of sight, the controller would likely indicate his position with the designator and then orally tell the pilot of the target's location.

If the controller used a more sophisticated laser designator, the plane's onboard tracker would pick up the beam and a screen on his console would show the controller's location. The controller could then use the laser beam to flash the target or instruct the pilot orally if the target was not within sight.

Zimmerman, the pilot, took part in air attacks on Iraq in 1998. He has been awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal (First Strike/Flight Award) and six Navy Commendation Medals.

Pentagon officials said they were uncertain whether Zimmerman has been grounded since the incident, though one military official said such an action is common while an investigation is under way.

The Truman's Hornet squadron continued to train yesterday, Navy officials said, but not at the Udairi range.

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