USAF, Family Settle Wrongful Death Lawsuit

The widow of a contractor killed during a friendly fire training incident at the White Sands Missile Range in 2017 sued the Air Force for $24.6 million in damages. The family’s lawyer told they settled for less than that, saying only it was “enough to take care of them for the rest of their lives.”

Retired Master Sgt. Charles Holbrook, a former tactical air control party Airman, was killed on Jan. 31, 2017, when an inexperienced F-16 student pilot strafed the wrong target during a live-fire nighttime training mission. Holbrook was struck in the head with a 20mm round from the jet’s Vulcan cannon, according to court documents filed in the United States District Court of New Mexico earlier this year. A military member also was injured, according to the accident investigation board report.

Holbrook was a business development manager at Sensors Unlimited, a division of United Technologies Aerospace Division, and was on the range to demonstrate a laser imaging device to members of the Dutch Air Force who also were participating in the exercise, according to the court documents, first reported on by Task & Purpose on Oct 16. The court records claim the Air Force did not provide the proper protective gear to Holbrook before allowing him on the range. However, the AIB notes that he had brought Level 3 body armor and a Kevlar helmet with him, but “displayed a level of complacency” by not putting it on.

“The fact that the MC [mishap contractor] has personal protective equipment with him, including a level 3A helmet and level 3 body armor without plates, supports a finding that the MC was aware of the inherent dangers of CAS live-fire training … ,” the AIB report states. “Based on the evidence before the AIB, while there is a possibility, the AIB could not determine the probability of whether the MC’s injury was preventable or the severity reduced had the MC been wearing his helmet at the time of the mishap.”

The AIB board president Maj. Gen. Patrick M. Wade on Sept. 26, 2017, found pilot error to be the cause of the incident, though the instructor pilot’s failure to properly supervise the mission and vague, yet “overaggressive” directions were significant contributors.

“I find, by the preponderance of the evidence, the cause of the mishap were two pilot errors that led to the errant firing upon the ground element’s location. The MP [mission pilot] misperceived that the ground element’s location was the intended simulated SA-8 training target. Additionally, the MP misinterpreted his instruments as he failed to follow his on-board systems that were directing him to the proper target … ,” wrote Wade.

“I also find, by the preponderance of evidence, the MIP’s [mission instructor pilot] failure to provide adequate supervision and instruction significantly contributed to the mishap. The MIP failed to cross-monitor the MP’s performance prior to and during the MP’s fatal strafing attack. The MIP exhibited task misprioritization as he focused his attention on Forward Air Controller (Airborne) (FAC(A)) duties while his student, the MP, was performing his strafing attacks. The MIP displayed overconfidence, complacency, and overaggressiveness during the mishap sortie.”

The training scenario involved four F-16 fighters—two flown by instructor pilots and two by student pilots. They were tasked with taking out an enemy position with “friendlies” nearby. There were 10 people on the ground at the time, including four joint terminal attack controllers from the Idaho Air National Guard’s 124th Air Support Operations Squadron and the 7th ASOS at Fort Bliss, Texas; two Army ground control liaison officers; and three Dutch JTACs there to observe Holbrook’s laser imaging device.

“The observers and civilian, Charles Holbrook, were placed less than a half mile away from the target in an almost identical configuration as the target—a line of rental vehicles on a dirt circle with a road going north of the circle,” the suit charges. “At night, in the dark, these two targets would look the same.”

The student pilot was a first lieutenant assigned to the F-16 Formal Training Unit at Holloman, with 86 total primary flying hours and 60.9 hours in the F-16, according to the AIB. The training event was the student pilot’s first night close air support mission, first use of night vision goggles while flying, and the first time performing a nighttime high-angle strafe of unlit targets, according to the lawsuit. His instructor pilot—who was operating an F-16D configured the same as the student pilot’s aircraft—was a captain stationed at Holloman, with 887 primary flight hours, including 857 in the F-16 and 107 instructor hours, according to the AIB.

The suit said it was “unclear” whether the 10 people on the ground knew they were being used as potential “friendly targets,” and they did not participate in the pilots’ mission briefing, which outlined the training scenario. However, the AIB said Holbrook did attend a ground mission briefing conducted by the JTACs.

According to the lawsuit, the plan was for the first JTAC—a member of the Idaho ANG’s 124th ASOS—to control the first two target runs, then pass control to another Airman, who was still qualifying to be a joint terminal attack controller, but would be supervised by a JTAC instructor. They were not told the instructor pilot might take control and instruct the student pilot to fire on a target, according to court documents.

The mission pilot conducted several bombing runs with both simulated and real inert bombs, the documents claim, and practiced evasive maneuvers, while one of the JTACS set up a red strobing infrared beacon at the observation point so the pilots could locate the friendlies on the ground. The suit alleges that while the instructor pilot confirmed he saw the strobe, the student pilot did not but he was not asked to verify the target by the instructor.

On the first run, the suit alleges, the mission pilot “mistakenly moved the targeting pod sensor in his jet and was ‘tracking’ (i.e. targeting) the 10 people on the ground” when he called out “capture target.” The student pilot was not asked to describe what he was targeting, according to court documents, alleging that the instructor did not verify he was tracking the right target.

“After pointing his aircraft at the people on the ground at the OP [observation point], he squeezed the trigger to fire his 20mm cannon on the OP. No rounds were released during this mis-targeting because the MP had inadvertently left his master armament switch in simulation mode, so nothing happened, and he flew over the top of the OP,” the documents allege.

Even though the student pilot’s instruments showed he was not on the correct target, and the red warning strobe was visible instead of the instructor pilot’s laser, the suit alleges, neither the student nor the instructor “realized his mistake.”

The suit also alleges that “The MP should have checked in with his student and verified that he had identified and was firing on the correct target, and whether he could safely continue training such a complicated scenario.” Instead, the court documents say, “the MIP chewed out the MP for having his master armament switch in simulation mode and, even though [the JTAC trainee] was supposed to be tracking and giving the order to re-attack or fire, the [instructor pilot] immediately ordered the [student pilot] to re-engage [the] target.”

The student pilot switched from simulation mode to arm mode and reengaged, the documents state, but still didn’t squeeze the trigger because he wasn’t sure he had the right target.

According to the suit, when the instructor asked him why he aborted, the student pilot said, “‘The sparkle just looked different so I did not want to shoot, I wasn’t uhh, it wasn’t as circular as I thought I saw, it looked like a light maybe on top of a building, I was wrong.’”

What he described, the suit alleges, was “spot on” for the observation point, where the 10 people remained on the ground, because the real target did not have any lights. But because the exchange happened over the private radio, the suit says, the JTACS did not know why the pilot aborted. When they asked why, the instructor pilot informed them the student pilot “was going to setup for a reattack,” according to court documents.

On the third run, the student pilot’s aircraft detected the correct target, the documents allege, but the pilot maneuvered the F-16 in the opposite direction back toward the observation point, which he had mistakenly targeted twice before. The instructor pilot, the suit says, took over mission control from the JTAC on the ground and instructed the student to shoot.

“The MP squeezed the trigger while the nose of the aircraft was pointed at the OP and sent 155 rounds of Vulcan cannon ammunition toward the ground crew, blowing up a rental car and striking Chuck Holbrook in the head with a 20mm round,” according to documents.

The wrongful death suit alleges the Air Force was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising the student pilots, instructor pilots, and JTACs. Holbrook’s widow, Belen Holbrook, is seeking $24.6 million in compensation.

Holloman-based TACP’s remembered Holbrook during a 24-hour run sponsored by the TACP Association last year.

“It is important for us to recognize and reflect on his sacrifices because it happened right here in Red Rio during a training day when he was out here with us,” said Tech. Sgt. Dan Hampton, 7th ASOS flight chief, in an April 2019 Air Force release. “I think it is important that we pay our respects.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12:47 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2020, to note the mishap pilot’s and mishap instructor pilot’s total primary flight hours.