Government July/August 2009

Flight Risk

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

“Actually, it wasn’t so much that the Embassy pushed,” Hooper said. “We had company guys over there every day, asking for more missions. These military contracts are competitive, and the company wanted the folks in charge to know we were up for anything.”

More and more often, the small unit was asked to fly higher and higher, and deeper and deeper into dangerous country. In the summer of 2002, after flying for more than a year, Cockes, then the unit’s lead pilot, stood up at a company all-hands meeting in Bogotá and expressed concern about this “mission creep,” warning that the single-engine Cessnas were no longer safe. He and the other pilots were willing to keep flying, he said, but wanted a commitment from the company that they would transition to twin-engine planes, which the aircraft supplier was willing to offer at no extra cost.

“We flew five or six days a week,” said one of the other pilots, Phill Bragg. “How far do you go out by yourself at night—300, 400 miles from Bogotá? We had been pulling it off, but they kept asking for more and more and more. So we said, ‘Fine, but we need to upgrade the platform.’ At some point, you need to hedge your bets.”

Cockes was relieved of his position as lead pilot two weeks later. He and three other pilots, Hooper, Bragg, and Tommy Schmidt (who would be killed in the second crash), subsequently received warning letters from Northrop Grumman and California Microwave Systems, threatening termination. Hooper and Cockes were upbraided for having “a negative attitude and divisive tendencies.”

Cockes and Hooper wrote a six-page rebuttal letter and mailed it on November 14, 2002, to James G. Cassady, vice president of human resources for Northrop Grumman; Roslyn Smith, human-resources manager for Northrop Grumman and California Microwave; and Douglas L. Tait, the flight-operations manager for both companies. In that letter, they “strongly ask[ed]” that the company “replace the single engine Caravan with a King Air 300 series aircraft [a twin-engine Beechcraft] immediately to expand the safety margins associated with the SRS mission.”

They warned specifically of the danger of engine failure with the Cessnas, and included the following lines in bold and italicized type:

We are now telling you that this mission creep coupled with the SRS Management Team’s attitude towards safe flight operations has made this mission very dangerous and creates unnecessary risk to the flight crews … This is uniquely an issue of safety and a recommendation that will possibly save lives, limit the companies’ exposure and enhance the mission’s performance.

The pilots got no response to the letter. But Lawrence McCune, the site manager, warned Cockes that Northrop Grumman was contemplating suing him personally for interfering with its “right to contract.” Hooper and Cockes—aware that the company was building a case to fire them, and worried in part about their reputations and opportunities for employment in the insular world of military-contracted intelligence—wrote directly on December 5, 2002, to Northrop CEO Kent Kresa, reiterating their safety concerns. Again, no response to their concerns.

Hooper and Cockes resigned in frustration in January 2003. Bragg was terminated at roughly the same time, “basically,” he says, “because they knew I was friendly and that I agreed with the other guys. I feel like I dodged a bullet, big-time.” All three pilots have found other work in their field, and fly missions as government contractors.

Six weeks after the second Cessna crash, with five men dead and three held captive, a new company took over the contract and began flying the surveillance missions over Colombia with twin-engine Beechcrafts. Northrop Grumman settled a lawsuit out of court with the families of three of the men who were killed. Kresa, meanwhile, was appointed interim chairman of General Motors.

Presented by

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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