Saturday, December 18, 2010

Echoes of Fairchild, Redux

When the Air Force recently released portions of its report on last summer's crash of a C-17 transport in Alaska, we noted the similarities between that fatal accident and the 1994 loss of a B-52 at Fairchild AFB, Alaska. In both cases, crews were rehearsing for air shows when the mishaps occurred and investigators discovered that pilot over-confidence and aggressive maneuvering caused the crashes, which killed a total of eight airmen.

While some cautioned against drawing parallels between the Fairchild and Alaska disasters, those comparisons have been confirmed by the Air Force accident report. Bruce Rolfsen of Air Force Times has dug deeper into the service's inquiry into crash. He discovered the USAF is pinning the blame almost entirely on Major Michael Freyholtz, the C-17 demonstration pilot who was flying the airlifter at the time it went down near Elmendorf AFB:

Maj. Michael Freyholtz flew C-17 Globemasters beyond their limits to entertain crowds, routinely ignoring cockpit stall warnings as he maneuvered the aircraft in and out of danger.

The 34-year-old demonstration pilot was teaching others to do the same July 28 when the C-17 he was flying crashed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, an investigation concluded. The crash killed all four on board and happened just two days before the Arctic Thunder air show was to begin at the base.

The report blamed Freyholtz for the crash because he failed to fly the C-17 within flight manual guidance for the plane.

“His aggressive flying placed the aircraft outside the viable flight parameters ... where recovery was not possible,” wrote Brig. Gen. Carlton Everhart, president of the accident investigation board.

But oddly enough, the same report largely absolves Freyholtz's superiors of any responsibility for the crash. Investigators learned that Major Freyholtz, as an experienced demonstration pilot, was given wide latitude in developing air show profiles for the C-17. At the time of his death, Freyholtz was one of the most experienced C-17 pilots at Elmendorf, with more than 3,000 hours in the cockpit of the Globemaster III. He had been a demonstration pilot for two years, flying the aircraft at air shows and similar events around the world.

According to the board, senior officers at Elmendorf "simply weren't aware" of what he was up to."

As a demonstration pilot, Freyholtz developed his own air show routine that violated safety standards, the report said. The 3rd Wing’s operations group officers responsible for Elmendorf’s demonstration team weren’t aware of what Freyholtz was doing.

“Because [Freyholtz] was an accomplished aviator, leadership allowed him to operate independently with little or no oversight,” the report said. “As a result, checks and balances within the program were insufficient.”

To be blunt, that explanation is simply incredible. Air show routines are briefed up the chain of command before any pilot takes to the skies. Air Force officials probing the 1994 B-52 crash at Fairchild discovered that the demonstration pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur "Bud" Holland routinely briefed profiles that exceeded flight safety limits for the aircraft. In most cases, Holland was corrected by superiors and reminded of the parameters for the B-52, but Holland violated them anyway. Senior leadership at Fairchild made no effort to sanction the rogue pilot, or remove him from flying status.

If we're to believe the Elemendorf report, then Major Freyholtz was left up to his own devices, and commanders within the Alaska Air National Guard (his parent organization) and the 3rd Wing (which "owned the C-17) never bothered to monitor his airshow routines. Again, that account strains the limits of credulity.

Are we supposed to believe that Freyholtz's routines were never briefed to his squadron commander, the operations group commander, or the wing commander? And what about leadership at Pacific Air Forces, the MAJCOM that controls the 3rd Wing, or Headquarters Air Mobility Command, which controls all of the USAF's airlift assets? Were senior officers in charge of operations and safety equally unaware of what Freyholtz was doing?

According to the accident investigation board, Major Freyholtz routinely flew the C-17 beyond its limits. Given his status as a demonstration pilot, it's reasonable to assume that some of performances occurred at air shows, in front of huge crowds that included senior airlift officers and other Globemaster III pilots. To their trained eyes, Freyholtz's unsafe routines would have been obvious--and alarming; it's hard to believe that no one raised a red flag about his air show profiles. Conversely, if other aviators did voice concerns, why were they ignored by senior leadership?

Finally, it's also worth noting that the final, fatal flight of Freyholtz and his crew was captured on videotape, available for viewing at and other websites. Judging from the tape, it was apparently recorded from the base control tower, and it focuses specifically on the doomed C-17, so it was not a security camera, positioned to record runway activity. That means someone--Major Freyholtz, his squadron, or someone else--detailed an individual to record the air show rehearsal.

Who was the videographer--and why was he/she taping that day? Additionally, if they were dispatched specifically to record the C-17 flight, that means that tapes of Freyholtz's other, unsafe profiles must exist. Were those tapes (assuming they exist) ever reviewed by senior leadership, or were they content to let Freyholtz operate on his own.

So far, we don't know the answers to those questions. But it's worth remembering that the Fairchild accident was followed by sanctions for senior officers who failed to stop Bud Holland. So far, there haven't been similar penalties (to our knowledge) for the officers above Major Freyholtz. That raises another obvious question--why? And how have those individuals managed to hang onto their jobs, in light of the failed oversight that contributed to the crash.


Brian said...

If airshow flying and practice had been outside C-17 operating limits on earlier flights, wouldn't that have shown up on the flight data recorder data that I presume is downloaded regularly for fatigue index recording and engineering diagnostics? Unmonitored data might as well be uncollected.

Bruce Leehan said...

FYI, the videographer in the CT was Air Force Public Affairs...they were there to basically get stock footage... not because they were watch-dogging the AC.