- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The U.S. Navy fighter that dropped three bombs on or near "friendly" troops did so after an air controller gave permission to hit a target in an expansive desert bombing range in Kuwait, Defense Department officials said yesterday.
Providing the first sketchy details for the Monday night mishap, the officials cautioned, however, that it is still too soon to determine whether the forward controller or the pilot made a mistake, or a mechanical error was to blame.
The officials said the controller radioed the pilot to abort moments later, but by that time the F-18 Hornet had released three 500-pound gravity bombs.
Six observers five American servicemen and a New Zealand officer were killed. They were the very group of forward controllers that were directing the pilot to the target.
The Air Force identified its casualty as Staff Sgt. Jason M. Faley, a tactical air controller with the 19th Air Support Operations Squadron at the Army's Fort Campbell, Ky.
The Army identified the four killed soldiers as:
Staff Sgt. Troy Westberg of Wisconsin, a medical specialist assigned to the 3rd Special Force Group at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Staff Sgt. Richard Boudreau of Florida, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist assigned to the 707th Ordnance Company; Sgt. Phillip Freligh of Nevada, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist with the 707th; and Spec. Jason Wildfong of West Virginia, an explosives disposal specialist assigned to the 707th.
"There was some kind of mistake somewhere," a defense official said. "Why this would happen is what has to be investigated."
Said another official, "When they cleared the range 'hot' they believe he is on target. They believe he's in the right place to drop the bombs and the range is ready."
The accident happened at night shortly after 7 Kuwait time in an exercise that has become fairly routine for allied aircraft protecting a no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Persian Gulf, named its deputy commander, Marine Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, to head an investigative board that was traveling to Kuwait yesterday.
An internal Navy memo obtained by The Washington Times said the pilot was equipped with night-vision goggles, a system that traps ambient light to improve nighttime air operations.
"[Aircraft] released three live Mk-82 bombs on or near [forward air control] position in Udairi bombing range," the memo states. The memo says the weather was clear Monday night.
The Pentagon identified the Navy pilot as Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, commander of Fighter-Attack Squadron 37 of Hornets onboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Cmdr. Zimmerman, a native of Orange Park, Fla., had logged more than 3,000 flying hours. His squadron is based at Oceana Naval Air Station, Va.
The bombs exploded on or near Observation Post 10, where U.S. Army and Air Force observers, and the New Zealand officer, were directing American, British and Kuwaiti warplanes taking part in a close-air-support exercise. Close air support normally is done at low or middle levels as pilots hunt and kill armor targets in close proximity to friendly troops.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, described it as a "fairly large-scale exercise" lasting over several days. He said 79 of a planned 85 strikes had been flown when the accident happened.
"The aircraft dropped a total of three Mk-82 bombs," Adm. Quigley said. "These are 500-pound, general-purpose bombs. And tragically, they hit near the service members that were at an observation post on the range."
He said the post consisted of a small structure. The controllers were inside tactical vehicles.
Adm. Quigley said the pilot, as required, flew a daytime sortie over the range Friday and dropped "live" munitions. That evening, he was executing another run, this time using a dummy bomb.
The spokesman described the controllers' job this way: "It is to properly identify targets that aircraft are to engage. It is to provide detailed information to the pilot of the aircraft on location of target, type of target … and to transfer that information to the pilot of the aircraft so that the pilot and the forward air controller are in sync… ."
A defense official said air controllers typically use lasers or infrared beams to designate the target a pilot is supposed to hit.
"Close air support is pretty dangerous," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a statement, saying: "Tragedies such as this occur without warning and for reasons that are difficult to understand. We will work hard to take care of the families involved, and to find out how such an accident could occur."


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