Air Force: Pilot Error Caused Pinelands Fire

Air Force: Pilot Error Caused Pinelands Fire
July 27th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Air Force: Pilot Error Caused Pinelands Fire

Air Force: Pilot Error Caused Pinelands Fire
Philadelphia Inquirer
July 27, 2007
Pg. 1
By Samuel Dangremond, Inquirer Staff Writer
A National Guard pilot who dropped low-altitude practice flares into the tinder-dry brush and flagrant miscommunication caused May's wildfire that scorched more than 20 square miles of New Jersey's Pinelands, an Air Force accident investigation concluded.
Nobody told the New Jersey Air National Guard pilot before he dropped several practice flares from an F-16 fighter jet that the forest-fire danger rating had been raised to its highest level, according to the report, which says pilot error is the primary cause of the huge blaze.
Despite the fire danger, a military control officer at the Warren Grove bombing range in the Pinelands called for two F-16 fighter jets to perform an unplanned, low-altitude "show of force maneuver," the report says. One of the pilots dropped several flares that were still burning when they hit the ground, sparking a wildfire that roared out of control for three days, destroying almost 18,000 acres of Pine Barrens, damaging dozens of homes and other structures, hurting two people, and displacing thousands of people from their homes and work.
As residents of scorched neighborhoods moved back into their rehabilitated homes, politicians pointed to the accident report and repeated calls for safety improvements at the bombing range, which is one of the East Coast's few air training ranges.
"It's clear that there were errors at multiple levels in the chain of command and that's highly concerning for the safety of New Jersey residents," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).
Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), and the area's two congressmen said they would press the military for what Rep. Jim Saxton (R., N.J.) called "real improvements to safety for the surrounding communities."
Gov. Corzine, citing a string of serious accidents involving the bombing range, has called for it to be closed. He said yesterday that he was "still concerned about the safety of communities and families near the base" and would "study the report before making any final decision about the facility's future," according to a spokesman.
The military, along with federal and state lawmakers and the governor, will review the 1,100-page report and determine what actions to take next, said Lt. Col. James Garcia, spokesman for the New Jersey National Guard.
The report, dated June 20 and signed by Air Force Maj. Gen. Emmett R. Titshaw Jr., president of the accident review board, faults a lack of communication between the range control officer and both fighter pilots.
The military's rules ban flare-dropping when the fire danger reaches its highest level, the report says. Nevertheless, the unnamed control officer at the bombing range called for the "show of force maneuver."
That maneuver typically involves a low-altitude, high-speed pass to demonstrate superiority to an enemy. It can, but does not always, involve deploying flares, according to experts.
Even when the fire threat is low, the gunnery range minimum altitude for flare-dropping is 500 feet, the report says.
Nevertheless, one of the F-16 pilots dropped the flares at less than 500 feet.
The range control officer told investigators that he didn't know the fire-danger rating had been raised five hours before the fire and didn't know that either pilot intended to use flares, the report says. The pilot who dropped the flares also said he was unaware of the fire danger, according to the report.
Warren Grove is one of the few training ranges on the East Coast, and proponents, including Reps. Saxton and Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), have said it is a critical military installation.
Closing the range, LoBiondo said yesterday, "would be detrimental to the region's and the nation's security."
Along Brighton Road in Barnegat - at a senior citizen housing development damaged by the wildfire - life was slowly getting back to normal this week.
New modular homes have replaced several that were destroyed, and others that were damaged have been repaired. About 2,000 people have filed damage claims with the military.
Edward Chapman, 80, a retired teacher, said the other day that he has been pleased with the military's response to the fire, which burned the plastic siding of his house and a sun porch.
"The Air Force said they would take care of it . . . and they did," he said.
Still, he said, the military can't bring back the luscious green forest that was destroyed beyond his backyard.
"You can't change that for me," he said, pointing to the blackened trees that border his property. "They say it'll come back in five years. . . . What am I going to do? Wait for it?"
He said the bombing range's record of accidents doesn't convince him that the base should be closed.
"We need all the protection we can get," Chapman said.
The fire was the latest mishap at the gunnery range.
In 2004, an F-16 Vulcan cannon mistakenly shot 1.5-inch training rounds into the Little Egg Harbor Township Intermediate School. The pilot had been aiming at a target three miles from the school. No one was injured.
In 2002, a pilot ejected from his F-16 before it crashed into the woods near the Garden State Parkway. No injuries were reported.
In 1999, a pilot dropped a dummy bomb one mile off target, sparking a Pinelands fire that burned 12,000 acres.

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