Jet pilot had received OK to drop bombs |

Jet pilot had received OK to drop bombs

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Navy pilot whose bombs killed six people in a training accident in Kuwait had received the go-ahead from a U.S. forward air controller who then called out ”abort, abort” in a belated attempt to wave off the misplaced strike, defense officials said Tuesday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the controller, whose job is to direct a pilot to a ground target, said to the pilot as he approached, ”Cleared, hot,” which is an unambiguous instruction to release the bombs. Seconds later, apparently realizing a mistake had been made, the controller called, ”abort, abort,” but it was too late.

It was not clear whether the controller was among those killed.

The U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for American military operations in the Persian Gulf area, appointed a three-star general to lead an investigation.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said he did not know in detail the sequence of events that led to the fatal accident Monday evening at the Udairi training range in northern Kuwait.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed sympathy for the families of the victims and pledged to find out how the accident happened. It marked the third calamity for the Navy in recent months. Following the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in October, the attack submarine USS Greeneville accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat off Hawaii on Feb. 9, killing nine Japanese.

Quigley said a Navy F/A-18C Hornet, launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Gulf as part of a multinational exercise dubbed ”Desert Spring,” dropped two or three 500-pound bombs on an observation post that was used by forward air controllers.

Five Americans at the observation post and one New Zealand army major were killed, he said. Three other people were seriously injured, one evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. The other two were in Kuwaiti medical facilities and will be taken to Germany when they are able to travel.

The key question that remained unanswered by the Pentagon Tuesday was why the bombs struck the observation post instead of the intended target. Did the pilot err, or were mistakes made by his ground controllers?

The Pentagon identified the Hornet pilot as Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, who commands the VFA-37 Hornet squadron aboard the Truman. The squadron is home-based at Oceana Naval Air Station, Va.

Asked about the status of Zimmerman, Quigley said: ”No one from the air wing flew today. That was across the board. I don’t know if his flight status has changed.” Zimmerman had flown a daylight and nighttime mission at Udairi three days earlier.

Zimmerman, a native of Orange Park, Fla., has more than 3,000 Navy flying hours.

Quigley said he did not know what sort of target designator was in use at the time of the accident.

Officials familiar with such ”close air support” missions said Tuesday that normally the forward air controller on the ground would have used an infrared device that the Hornet pilot could spot. The pilot would enter into an on-board computer an ”offset” – a measurement for how far from the infrared signal the bomb should land. If the ”offset” was not entered into the computer, the bomb would be released at a point that would direct it toward the infrared source – in this case the observation post.

It is possible that the forward air controller was using a laser to designate the target, but officials said they believe this was unlikely.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason M. Faley, a tactical air controller with the 19th Air Support Operations Squadron based at Fort Campbell, Ky., was identified as one of the dead.

The four other Americans killed were members of the Army. They were identified Tuesday as Staff Sgt. Troy J. Westberg, a native of Mankato, Minn., a medical sergeant assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C; Staff Sgt. Richard N. Boudreau of Florida; Sgt. Phillip M. Freligh of Nevada, and Spc. Jason D. Wildfong of West Virginia. Home towns were not provided except for Westberg’s. Boudreau, Freligh and Wildfong were explosive ordnance disposal specialists assigned to the 707th Ordnance Company at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Acting Army Maj. John McNutt, 27, was identified as the New Zealander killed.

Quigley said the accident happened in darkness, with night-vision goggles in use, and weather was not a problem.

The New Zealand government was pressing for answers in the death of McNutt.

”This was a live bomb basically dropped on observers, said Defense Minister Mark Burton. ”It shouldn’t happen and we all need to know precisely what went wrong.”

The U.S. military has operated regularly from airfields and an Army base in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition expelled the occupying Iraqi army from the tiny Persian Gulf nation. The continuing presence of U.S. forces in Kuwait is meant as a deterrent to Iraq.

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