Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Capt. Jared Foley and his crew in a C-17 Globemaster III were ready to turn back home after a paratrooper landed outside of a planned drop zone on a July 2011 training exercise.
The National Guard parachutist jumped from the plane’s fifth pass over a Montana landing zone, and the error caused the crew to cancel a planned sixth and seventh run.
Then an Army safety officer on the ground called the C-17 crew with a new assessment: The paratrooper missed his drop zone because of his own errors. The Army officer told the Air Force crew they were clear for more jumps.
Suddenly Foley’s Air Force crew no longer considered that flawed jump on their fifth pass an “off drop zone” landing that would have compelled them to terminate their exercise.
Foley consulted his team and Army safety officers and went back for a sixth pass, the one that led to the death of Army Sgt. Francis Campion when he landed on a building outside of his drop zone.
Two members of Foley’s crew recounted those events in court today at Lewis-McChord, where Foley is on trial for one count of reckless endangerment and three of dereliction of duty.
Prosecutors argued that the pilot failed to follow Air Force regulations by giving the OK for the sixth pass over Marshall Air Field in Montana. He should have ended the mission when one guardsman landed outside of the drop zone on the fifth pass, according to two different regulations they displayed before a court-martial panel made up of 10 Air Force officers.
The regulations read clearly. One said that after an off drop zone landing, “the aircrew involved will not attempt another airdrop for the remainder of the mission.”
“Foley made a decision that made an already inherently dangerous mission even more dangerous,” prosecutor Capt. Kennard Keeton said in his opening argument.
Foley’s defense attorney countered that the pilot should not be judged with perfect, “20-20 hindsight.” Instead, Capt. Sarah Carlson argued, Foley’s actions should be considered in the context of of the circumstances he and his crew encountered on the day of the fatal airdrop.
The mission apparently got off to a bad start. The McChord crew was delayed leaving the South Sound on its way to an Ohio air base. It was delayed again on its way to Montana with the paratroopers from the West Virginia National Guard.
Capt. Joy Zayatz, Foley’s copilot on the mission, said she could not find the type of parachute the jumpers were using in two different manuals when she sought information to load into her plane’s mission computer. She found a similar-named parachute in the system and assumed it was the correct one.
She was mistaken, and the information changed the outcomes of a computer system that helps calculate the correct jump time for parachutists.
Later, Army soldiers on the ground gave the crew information about wind directions that conflicted with what they were tracking from a Helena air control tower. It was a common mistake in communication, Zayatz said, because the Army and Air Force use different patterns in describing wind conditions.
Still, Zayatz and a loadmaster from the mission testified that they did not feel rushed in making decisions that day. Neither did Foley, they remembered.
Zayatz was the pilot for the fifth run, but Foley was still the commander of the jet. The Army drop zone safety officer reported that a soldier landed outside the planned landing area.
“I said we’re done,” Zayatz remembered.
But the Army officer called back over a radio and said the mistake occurred because of jumper error.
The air crew paused and discussed cancelling the mission. They did not pick up Air Force regulations on board that might have told them to terminate the exercise, but they also no longer considered the fifth pass to be an “off drop zone” landing that would have compelled them to turn home.
The five-person air crew, an Army jump master and multiple Army safety officers said they wanted to continue, loadmaster Staff Sgt. Ben Alexander testified.
Prosecutors played a video of what happened on that sixth pass. Three paratroopers generally stay close to each other in the air, landing in a grass field. A fourth stays in the air a little longer.
He crashes into a rooftop with his helmet flying off the building. Trainers filming the drop shout in shock, knowing the soldier is hurt.
Today in court, Foley has several Army and Air Force supporters sitting behind him, including a squadron commander from Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing.
Two of Campion’s relatives from Pennsylvania also are in court.