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.
“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.