ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- An Air Force investigation revealed Thursday that low-ranking airmen loaded a live missile on a jet fighter without knowledge of their superiors and that various safeguards were ignored before the pilot fired the missile during maneuvers over Alaska earlier this year.
The F-15 pilot who fired the missile at another F-15, causing $1 million damage, was Lt. Michael Lynch, 26, of Leesburg, Va. He has been suspended from flying pending review by an evaluation board, Elmendorf Air Force Base officials said.
The other pilot, Lt. Col. Jimmy Harris, 40, managed to fly his damaged jet back to Elmendorf after the March 19 incident.
A two-inch-thick investigative report -- released Thursday with deletions 'to remove sensitive information' -- found evidence that Lynch committed offenses and may face a court martial or other disciplinary proceedings, Lt. Col. Robert Lane said in the report.
A military investigation board questioned several dozen officers connected to the incident. Lynch refused to answer questions by the tribunal.
Witnesses gave sharply contrasting accounts of policies and procedures for handling missiles and were unable even to agree on what was normal procedure and what was not. The testimony painted a picture of general confusion with no clear lines of authority being known or followed for missiles.
'The end result was no information flow to the command center or the 54th Tactical Fighter Squadron,' Lane concluded. 'No one above the rank of captain in the 21st TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) was aware that the missile was being loaded for ferry to King Salmon (air base).'
The probe found that even commanding officers were confused about missile policies, triggering major changes in missile handling and the removal of Col. Harold Storer as Wing commander. He retired instead of accepting a new post.
Storer had testified that missiles could be ferried from one base to another on a simple say-so. But the report indicates that a written form must be filled out. Since the incident, new procedures have been established requiring written approvals and a clear chain of command, said Maj. Doug McCoy, Elmendorf spokesman.
Other new procedures require runway ground crews to consult with air crews. In this case, the runway crew knew the F-15 was taking off with a live missile and voiced fears about it amongst themselves, according to the report.
Although there are visible differences between practice and real missiles, McCoy said that from now on practice missiles will be painted blue.
Pilots Lynch and Harris were to engage in mock intercepts with practice missiles during the Arctic Cover exercise on the way to King Salmon.
A week earlier, King Salmon Air Force officials had asked Elmendorf to return an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile being repaired. Munitions workers complied by loading the high-explosive warhead used for air-to-air combat on Lynch's F-15.
Neither Lynch nor Harris knew the jet was armed, but the probe concluded that Lunch would have known if he had followed correct pre-flight procedures. When they began maneuvers 180 miles west of Elmendorf, Lynch fired the heat-seeking missile. Harris avoided a direct hit but the missile struck his tail. Harris prepared to eject, decided against it and managed to fly the crippled jet back to Elmendorf.
The officers who commanded the exercise, which was then canceled, said they were surprised by the presence of a live missile. Arctic Cover briefings said only practice missiles were being used.
But investigators turned up a host of airmen who knew Lynch had a live missile. Air crew chief William Maguire testified that he told Lynch, 'You have a live one on the right side,' but said Lynch may not have heard him over the jet noise.
Weapons load crew chief Jeffrey Lang filled out a discrepancy form showing the F-15 carried a live missile, but Lynch failed to read the document.
While waiting for their planes to be readied for action, Lynch, Harris and others circled the armed F-15, and Lynch asked why he had two practice training missiles when he was supposed to have one -- despite testimony that practice missiles look different than real ones on close inspection.
No one present could tell Lynch why he had two practice training missiles (PTM), nor did Lynch's question raise any concerns. But one witness quoted Harris himself replying to Lynch: 'You're probably taking a spare PTM out to the sites (King Salmon).'