Pilot lost guessing game in Blackwater crash

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2006 

A soldier salutes the memorial display for service members and civilian employees of Blackwater killed in the crash.

U.S. ARMY PHOTO

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CORRECTION

On Page 20A Saturday, a caption under a photo of a Blackwater airplane that crashed Nov. 27, 2004, in Afghanistan incorrectly identified the maker of the aircraft. It was a Casa 212.

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On a mission to transport three soldiers over the snowcapped mountains of Afghanistan in 2004, the pilot of a plane owned by a North Carolina security company guessed which route he should take, according to the plane's flight recorder.

The guess proved fatal when the Blackwater plane slammed into a mountainside, killing all on board.

"I hope I'm goin' in the right valley," Noel English, the pilot, said after takeoff. "I'm just gonna go up this one."

Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan and Spc. Harley Miller, all stationed in Hawaii, died in the crash Nov. 27, 2004. Three crew members were also killed: English, a native of Emory, Miss.; co-pilot Loren Hammer of Redmond, Ore.; and flight mechanic Melvin Rowe of Tontagony, Ohio.

The plane, which was flying as part of Blackwater's $34.8 million aviation contract with the Air Force, was ferrying the men on a noncombat mission from an airfield in Bagram to Farah.

The families of the men filed a federal lawsuit in Florida last year against Blackwater's aviation wing, alleging that the plane lacked basic safety equipment such as radar or a Global Positioning System. The pilots, who had been in Afghanistan only two weeks and had never flown the route before, failed to take the basic step of planning a flight route, the lawsuit asserted.

The lawsuit echoes another filed against Blackwater in a Wake County court over the massacre of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. That lawsuit alleged that Blackwater sent the contractors into the insurgent stronghold with no armor, no map, too few men and weapons and no planning. The men's bodies were set on fire and dragged through the streets, and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

Blackwater USA, based in the Currituck County town of Moyock, is one of the biggest private security firms in Iraq, providing services such as bodyguards for diplomats. It also has divisions that train law enforcement officers and build target systems.

The plane was registered to Presidential Airways, the aviation division of Blackwater USA. Both companies are owned by the Prince Group, the holding company controlled by Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

Blackwater did not respond to questions Friday but released a letter to the National Transportation Safety Board asking for a full investigation of the crash. "The more we can learn about the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, the better we can honor the memories of those who died," the letter said.

Sean Cronin, a lawyer who represents the families of the soldiers killed in the crash, said the flight crew violated a cardinal rule of flight by flying without planning the route.

The flight, Blackwater 61, was a commercial flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The Air Force contract required Blackwater to operate under Federal Aviation Administration rules; that agency requires commercial pilots to plan a specific and safe route of flight.

"You have to know the highest obstacles, either to go around them or go over them," said Cronin, a Navy Reserve pilot who flies a turboprop. "They had no plan and were out for a Saturday drive in the country."

None of the crew had flown the route before, Cronin said. The crew did not bring a Global Positioning System unit and flew primarily by eyeball with a map in their hands, he said.

The flight took off from Bagram Air Field, outside Kabul, at 7:08 a.m. local time, according to an Army investigative report and the transcript.

Early in the flight, English, the pilot, wondered about his route: "I hope I'm goin' in the right valley."

"That one or this one," said Hammer, the co-pilot.

"We'll just see where this leads," English said.

Rowe, the flight mechanic, asked for the maps and asked whether the pilots brought a handheld Global Positioning System to establish their latitude and longitude.

"I didn't get that little GPS," Hammer said.

Seventeen minutes before the crash, English observed that they were flying into a box canyon, with mountains on the front and both sides.

"OK, we're comin' up to a box here," he said. "I think this valley might peter out right up here."

The pilot then shifted subjects. He wished they had a device to play CDs during the flight: "Philip Glass or somethin' suitable, New Age-y."

Hammer differed: "No, we gotta have butt rock, that's the only way to go. Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister."

English: "I swear to God, they wouldn't pay me if they know how much fun this was."

Four minutes later, 90 seconds before the crash, the chatter turns more serious. "Whoa, whoa," someone said.

"We can always turn around up in here," said English, who started to move the plane higher. "Come on baby, come on baby, you can make it."

"You guys are going to make this, right?" Rowe asked.

"Yeah, I'm hopin'," English replied.

English dropped the plane's wing flaps to climb more. Hammer disagreed: "Let's turn around."

"You need to make a decision," Rowe said.

A signal sounds, probably a warning that the plane is stalling.

"We're goin' down," Rowe said.

The transcript ends with two utterances:

"God."

"God."

Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or jneff@newsobserver.com.

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