Best Defense

How a rogue pilot misbehaved for years in a B-52 squadron, and so killed 4 people

How a rogue pilot misbehaved for years in a B-52 squadron, and so killed 4 people

Of all the military services, the one I know least about is the Air Force, which doesn’t get a lot of electrons on this blog. So I was especially intrigued to finally sit down and go through a study sent to me months ago by a Best Defense reader. "Darker Shades of Blue: A Case Study of Failed Leadership" is a thorough, careful study of how leadership lapses over the course of several years ultimately led to disaster in an Air Force bomber wing. It’s also a beautiful if horrifying exploration of how bad shit can happen despite volumes of rules and regulations aimed at ensuring safe practices are followed.

Even if you care nothing about the Air Force, it is a fascinating study of leadership, and applicable to many different situations. Basically, it is the tale of how an out-of-control pilot managed to consistently break the rules, but did so with a clever understanding of how to manipulate the system. So, for example, he would push the limits until his commander sat him down and gave him an oral warning. But these were not recorded. So the pilot, who had a reputation as perhaps the best B-52 pilot in the Air Force, would lay low a bit and then, when the next commander came in, the pattern would repeat itself. The rogue pilot got by on a series of these "last chance" reprimands. Subordinates knew what was going on, and found themselves in the position of either risking their lives by flying with him, or risking their careers by refusing to do so.

When a senior officer was told about video evidence showing a recent instance of flight indiscipline by the free-styling pilot, he responded, "Okay, I don’t want to know anything about that."

Eventually, on June 24, 1994, a B-52 with the rogue pilot at the controls went down at Fairchild Air Force Base while attempting a tight 360 degree left turn around the control tower at 250 feet above the ground. It "banked past 90 degrees, stalled, clipped a power line with the left wing and crashed," killing four crew members — three lieutenant colonels and a colonel.

The key thing to watch, warns the author, Tony Kern, is "incongruity between senior leadership words and actions." That is a very important lesson for any organization.  

(A big tip of the official BD baseball cap to the person who sent me the link a couple of months ago — I searched all four of my e-mail accounts and couldn’t find who it was, but I appreciate it.)