Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Desperate Hours in Sudan

Kudos to staff writer Michael Hoffman of Air Force Times. Mr. Hoffman--the first reporter to uncover the inadvertent transfer of nuclear weapons between Air Force bases in North Dakota and Louisiana in 2007--has discovered another event the service would rather forget.

It happened almost three years ago, at a remote airfield in Sudan. An Air Force HC-130, normally used to coordinate search-and-rescue missions, was assigned a seemingly routine task. The aircraft (and its eleven man crew) were dispatched from their deployment base in Djibouti, to pick up a U.S. military officer assigned to the U.N. mission in Darfur. The officer's wife was pregnant and had fallen ill; the HC-130 would cover the first leg of his journey home.

But the pick-up mission proved anything but routine. Sudanese soldiers at the crew's destination (Al-Fashir Airfield) were convinced the Americans were there to collect evidence of war crimes, and not retrieve the liaison officer. As Michael Hoffman describes it:

At 8 a.m. under fair conditions, PAT 332 took off from Camp Lemonier and flew 3½ hours to Khartoum. Waiting for them on the ground was a U.S. Embassy representative. An hour later, the plane took off for Al-Fashir.

The HC-130 made its approach to Al-Fashir two hours later. As the wheels touched down, crew members watched as Sudanese soldiers — 50 to 100 feet apart along both sides of the runway — turned and pointed their AK47s at the plane. Also near the airfield were anti-aircraft guns. In the background was a garrison, not shown in the images.

Waiting for the plane were two U.S. military liaisons with six locked duffel bags. One of the men, the crew members assumed, was the father-to-be. They were wrong. The military liaison they had come to pick up was already gone, the men said. He had left five days earlier but needed his bags of equipment and four 9mm pistols.

The crew members loaded the bags and hid the guns in the plane before they checked in with airfield officials, who requested that co-pilots 1st Lt. Timothy Saxton and 1st Lt. John Cuddy deliver their flight plan to the air traffic control tower. Saxton and Cuddy agreed to do as requested but asked if they could keep the plane’s engines running while the officers were driven to the tower because one of the turboprops was hard to start. Their request was denied, and they shut down PAT 332.

After Saxton and Cuddy returned to their aircraft, the HC-130 was cleared for departure. But as the aircraft taxied out, a Sudanese intelligence officer noticed the FLIR ball on the bottom of the aircraft. Concerned that the FLIR had recorded images of bombs being loaded on Sudan's military aircraft at the field--for use against civilian targets in Darfur--a Sudanese intelligence official began barking orders into his cell phone. Seconds later, the HC-130, callsign PAT 332, was ordered to return to the ramp.

Over the hours that followed, the situation grew increasingly tense. A group of Sudanese soldiers surrounded the aircraft. At one point, U.S. military liaison officers--who met the HC-130 when it landed--told the crew they might be arrested and executed. A Sudanese officer also informed the Americans that the crew's two female members would be raped after being taken into custody.

The stand-off continued into the evening, with the crew of PAT 332 caught in the middle. At one point, the radio operator, MSgt Paul Widener, radioed Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and asked if any aircraft had been launched to support them. All aircraft were on the ground, he was told.

Meanwhile, an estimated 150 Sudanese soldiers took up firing positions around the aircraft. The eleven aircrew members (and a six-man security detachment from the Guam National Guard) donned body armor and readied their weapons. But if the Sudanese opened fire with machineguns and RPGs, the Air Force crew stood little chance of survival.

The terrifying ordeal finally ended when a U.S. liaison officer asked to speak with the airfield commander, who demanded payment of a landing fee. He was told the fee had been paid--and didn't ask for proof. With that issue settled, PAT 332 and its crew were finally allowed to leave.

When they returned to Djibouti, the crew faced an equally strange reception. From the Air Force Times account:

A debriefing by an intelligence analyst, psychologist and flight surgeon is standard protocol to reintegrate an airman held hostage. But not even the squadron intelligence officer was waiting when PAT 332 landed because squadron commander Lt. Col. Christopher Austin hadn’t reported the mission as a hostage event to Central Command’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center, which would have put the reintegration process in motion.

An enlisted intelligence specialist had been on the ground at Camp Lemonier and started to debrief the crew members, but an unidentified officer ended the session and ordered everyone to go to bed. They were scheduled to fly a training mission the next day.

The mission left aircrew members with questions about their safety. One worried that his name had been taken by Sudanese intelligence officials and his family was vulnerable. A squadron intelligence officer told him that his name probably had been entered into Sudanese intelligence databases but not to worry about it. The crew member couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

More than 70 days passed before Central Command learned about the mission. None of the documents stated who corrected the report. CentCom intelligence officials tracked down the crew members and National Guardsmen to file a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency report.

The help from Central Command, though, came too late for at least two aircrew members. They now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are no longer allowed to fly because of their diagnosis. Both list the mission to Al-Fashir as the cause of their symptoms, which include severe anxiety and depression.

To this day, no Air Force official can explain why Lt Col Austin mis-handled the situation so badly--or if higher-ups pressured him to keep the incident quiet. He has not been made available for media interviews.

And, if that's not bad enough, the crew of PAT 332 received a final insult earlier this year. For their cool-headed actions at Al-Fashir, the officers were nominated for Bronze Stars, while enlisted personnel were nominated for Air Force Commendation Medals with the "V" (Valor) device.

But their decorations were down-graded by then Lieutenant General Gary North, the former commander of Air Forces Central Command. A memo from North's office said "justification does not support award recommendation." Instead, the crew of the HC-130 received Air Force Achievement Medals with the Valor device.

Readers will recall that General North is the same flag officer who ran interference for Major Jill Metzger, the Air Force officer who "disappeared" from a mall in Kyrgyzstan in September 2006. When she resurfaced three days later, Metzger claimed that she had been kidnapped. But no evidence to support that theory has ever been found. A number of U.S. law enforcement officials believe that Metzger staged her own disappearance, perhaps to cover-up an AWOL.

According to, General North was present when Metzger was "repatriated." Interestingly, he told two Air Force Security Forces specialists (protecting the flightline) to keep what they saw and heard to themselves. He then pressed his personal coin into their hands, in an effort to seal the deal.

North was willing to go to bat for Jill Metzger, a woman who is an abject liar (and worse). But he rejected modest awards for a heroic crew in a dangerous situation that could have easily triggered a war. Someone needs to ask General North how he justifies that double standard.

As you might have heard, North recently received his fourth star. Go figure.


ici chacal said...

y'know, i've been following this blog for awhile now. i gather you the authors are ex-USAF, or at least have dealt with USAF folks for quite some time. so naturally, you're going to focus this blog on USAF and their myriad snafus. fine. no problem. i get that: write about what you know.

but over the last 6 months or so, your tales of air force perfidy, cowardice, incompetence and ass-covering has grown so voluminous, that i gotta wonder: you guys realize that what you're describing is a (very well-equipped) 3rd world air force? an air force in which connections and PC override small things like "merit", "ability", "accountability", and "the truth"? an air force in which a lost/mishandled nuclear weapons situation is met with yawns and coverups is NOT a 1st class AF, last i checked.

this latest deal, where the air crew gets crapped on by the same general who broke rules to protect his (uniformed) honey maybe takes the cake. the part where he gets **promoted** later (to 4 freakin' stars?!?) is just icing on the cake.

OldSarg said...

ici - tell us the obvious.

ici chacal said...

.....the point being, is it *really* that bad in the USAF? is america *really* saddled with a 3rd-world AF run by perfidious, perfumed, prancing, dishonorable dilettantes? i read these "senior officer follies" posts, and i think, "this sounds like the iranian AF. or, worse, the french army in 1415, say."

will no one rid us of these troublesome incompetent generals?

billmill said...

No one will ever rid us of the cult of the perfumed princes. The last General officer I personally knew who had any integrity, Norman Seip just retired at 12th AF, I truly belive that there is no one left to replace him. Everyone thought the new Chief of Staff was the answer, but were has he been in addressing the double standards like are referred to in the entry, I can tell you nowhere. After all Gen North did pick up his fourth star.
When I read the list earlier this year on newly appointed one stars I saw there is hardly a combat vet among them, lots of staff tours but very few with lots of seat time and one of the logistics officer who will soon be a General was so incompetent as a Capt sortie generation officer (but very political) back in the mid 90’s at RAFL, that the command kept the other Capt around an extra 8 months until they could get rid of him.
I truly loved the Air Force until the last year or so I was on active duty before I retired in late 2000. It was then when I stood back and saw how far we had fallen from a truly capable world wide fighting force to one that was too politically correct and had been mismanaged to the point that we would actually have a hard time flying sorties like we did during Desert Storm. People will argue that point but all I will counter with, were are the dedicated jammers, new radar for the C models and radios for the E, Photo recon, real Wild Weasels and new tankers? I can answer this by stating that Generals in the Air Staff over the last 15 years have effectively disarmed the USAF in their bid to secure to few generation 5 fighters. It may be simplistic but someone tell me what the real answer is. Hopefully nothing-serious will happen in the next five years that will reveal the true shortcomings of the current force structure

fmfnavydoc said...

I hate to say it, but it is the same in the Navy (which I retired from after 26 years of service). Inept leadership at the local command level and up has hurt all of the services for at least the last 10 years.

When leadership stop awarding promotions based on "connections" and start basing on performance will the change in mindset start.

Unknown said...

Good comments all...from my perspective, the AF's leadership problem will continue until someone is finally held accountable. The USAF brags that none of its general officers has ever been court-martialed--and it certainly shows. Personally, I can think of at least a dozen Air Force flag officers who deserved jail time for their transgressions, but the worst punishment any received was a reduction in rank, or a letter of admonishment.

Meanwhile, the AF continues to throw the book at junior personnel who screw up. I remember one TSgt at a base in Oklahoma who claimed $75 too much on a do-it-yourself move. He received a dishonorable discharge and confinement--his career was destroyed.

Compare that to retired Maj Gen Stephen Goldfein, who was "disciplined" for his actions in the "Thundervision" scandal. He steered a $50 million contract to a firm run by one of his former mentors, breaking all sorts of contracting regs in the process. His punishment? A letter of admonishment. He still retired as a two-star, and I'd venture that he's doing a lot better than the former TSgt who was crucified for his mistake.

Northlander said...

Excellent discussion with comments 1 - 6. I was a enlisted guy when I served in the USAF and agree.

However, reading this I wonder what am I missing? Besides the questions raised about the support and treatment of the aircrew during and after the mission I've come up with more questions that I think deserve investigation.

Who ordered the mission?

Who decided this particular airframe had to fly there post haste rather than a more generic cargo version?

How does it happen the crew gets there and is told the liaison officer left a week ago and all they are to do is pick up 6 locked duffel bags?

What's in the duffel bags?

Why couldn't the duffel bags go out on the normal embassy resupply?

Why wasn't CENTCOM notified of the stand-off situation in real time?

Who made the decision not to inform CENTCOM?

We can come up with more questions if we put out heads together.

This situation stinks!

Once again, Lt Gen Gary North is in the middle of a great mystery that doesn't make sense and the AF isn't the least bit curious.

Not a good sign for the new CSAF and SECAF supposedly cleaning things up.

OK, where am I wrong or what am I missing?