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Air Force downplayed crashes, officer says

Published Oct. 4, 2005

A longtime senior Air Force safety officer contends that the military hushed up facts and played down investigations in dozens of plane crashes, some involving deeply embarrassing incidents of misconduct, to protect senior officers' careers.

Three investigations are under way at the Pentagon into the accusations, which include a case in which two Navy pilots and a navigator removed their clothes, helmets and oxygen masks to expose their buttocks to the crew of another fighter jet. They passed out, the plane crashed and all three were killed.

The official who made the accusations, Alan Diehl, was the Air Force's chief civilian safety official from 1987 until last October, when he was transferred against his will to a lesser advisory post at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

He said in an interview Friday that he was transferred because he had become a problem for senior officers.

"They were tired of me complaining about inadequate investigations" of accidents, said Diehl, who holds an engineering doctorate in systems safety.

Diehl said he documented 30 accidents that killed 184 people _ pilots, crews and civilians _ and destroyed billions of dollars worth of aircraft. His reports recount training accidents, routine military maneuvers and incidents in the Persian Gulf War in which he said incompetence and poor leadership were not punished.

His reports include a near-accident last fall in which two B-52 bombers narrowly missed colliding with a civilian airliner. In another case, a pilot reportedly allowed his wife to take the controls of an Air Force transport plane, which then crashed. Both were killed.

Air Force officials reacted to his criticism "with attempts to intimidate and threaten me," he said. "This was about protecting the careers of senior military officers. It's very difficult to investigate yourself, but it's even harder to investigate your boss.

"No one wants to go to the boss and say, "You're responsible for these fatalities.' And if a general doesn't like the results of the investigation, the investigators are in big trouble."

Diehl's accusations were first reported last month by Time magazine, and again Friday in the Washington Post.

The initial report led to the convening Saturday of an independent panel of Air Force experts, ordered by the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogelman.

The panel is expected to report within 60 days, Air Force officials said. Formal investigations are already under way at the General Accounting Office and the Pentagon's inspector general's office.

Crashes of military planes are commonplace, Pentagon records show. The Air Force has experienced crashes at the rate of about one every 10 days in recent months.

Five of its 59 Stealth 117-A fighters, the Air Force's most sophisticated jet, have crashed in recent years, at a loss of three lives and about a quarter of a billion dollars in equipment.

This is normal, Diehl said _ 10 to 20 percent of Air Force planes crash. "They keep having the same accidents over and over again because they never learn from the previous ones," he said.

Few officers have been held accountable for the incidents, he said.

The question of accountability in military accidents arose again Monday. That day, a court-martial acquitted the only airman charged after U.S. fighter jets shot down two U.S. helicopters carrying an international team of soldiers and civilians across Iraq. Twenty-six people died.