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.

“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.