Government July/August 2009

Flight Risk

When a U.S. company ignored pilot warnings in Colombia, four Americans died, and three were taken captive

Image: AP Photo/El Tiempo

Last July, in a clever rescue operation by Colombia’s military, three American contractors held hostage by rebels in the Colombian jungle were freed, along with 12 others, including the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped six years earlier while running for president of Colombia.

The three American contractors, who had been held since February 13, 2003, when their Cessna Caravan’s single engine failed and they crashed, told of their ordeal in Out of Captivity, a compelling account released earlier this year. The book caused a mild stir with its portrait of Betancourt, whose behavior while being hauled, bound and half-starved, through the jungle was apparently not all that might have been wished.

But one of the most disturbing parts of the three Americans’ story was not in the book. Their Cessna was the first of two to crash into the jungle early in 2003. (The pilot, Tom Janis, and a Colombian army sergeant named Luis Alcedes Cruz were executed at the site by rebels.) The second went down just over a month later, on March 25, killing all three crew members. Both planes were initially operated under an $8.6 million Pentagon contract by California Microwave Systems of Maryland, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. And they were being flown despite repeated warnings by veteran pilots that the mission was running untenable risks.

Those pilots, Paul Hooper and Doug Cockes, predicted that the single-engine Caravan would be unsafe for high-tempo missions over the Andes Mountains. After program managers on site in Bogotá dismissed their warnings, the pilots wrote letters in the fall of 2002 detailing their concerns to company officials, including Kent Kresa, then the chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman. For their pains they were demoted, reprimanded, threatened with lawsuits, and, in their words, “pushed out” of the program shortly before their predictions came tragically true. They consider themselves fortunate. “The only reason those three Americans were captive on the ground for five years, and the reason why five of their colleagues are now dead, is the greed and incompetence of California Microwave and Northrop Grumman,” Hooper told me.

Two of the captives, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes, are now back to work for Northrop Grumman and did not respond to my interview request. The third, Marc Gonsalves, said that he joined the program too late to fully grasp the efforts the pilots had made to prevent his crash, but supports fully their version of events. The company itself declined to respond to my questions.

The small group of contractors, based at El Dorado International Airport in northwest Bogotá and operating under the name Southcom Reconnaissance System (SRS), flew deep into Colombia searching for drug-smuggling infrastructure. The pilots lived in apartments in Bogotá and were paid well—up to $150,000 annually. Most were former military, and all were used to working in exotic and dangerous spots, inhabiting the gray area between civilian life and the U.S. military/intelligence community. They were accustomed to managing risk.

All of the pilots knew that the Cessna Caravans, aircraft designed to carry about 10 passengers but modified for surveillance work, were ill-suited for the task at hand. El Dorado airport itself is more than 8,300 feet above sea level, where the air is so thin that the Caravan pilots could not take off with the extra weight of full fuel tanks. They typically left Bogotá with only enough gas to fly down to the Colombian military base at Larandia, where they topped up before setting off on missions that kept them airborne for four to five hours.

With precious few spots for emergency landings in the Andes, the pilots felt vulnerable flying with only one engine. “In a two-engine aircraft, you lose one and you shut it down, start troubleshooting, and have time to consider your options,” said Hooper.

But as veterans with long records of service, the pilots felt capable of safely flying the aircraft beyond what others considered its limits. “It’s called pushing your luck,” Hooper said. “We were stupid but lucky, and we knew it, but experience counts for a lot in these situations. We were comfortable doing it, at first.”

Before September 11, 2001, their daily flights focused on drug interdiction. Congressional restrictions on the use of the American military in the decades-old Colombian civil war discouraged the pilots from trying to spot rebel forces—even though the rebels protected or ran many of the drug operations on the ground, and occasionally fired at the planes. But after September 11, the U.S. Embassy, which supervised the contract, interpreted the rules more loosely and began authorizing flights looking for rebel troop movements and targets.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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