U.S. Marine Corps Concludes Its Investigation Into a Fatal 2018 Midair Crash Was Inaccurate

July 6, 2020Robert Faturechi
A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, awaits the next flight during exercise Cope North (CN) 20, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb 27, 2020. Exercise CN is an annual U.S. Pacific Air Forces multilateral field training exercise with participants from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the Royal Australian Air Force. The primary intent of CN is to enhance coordination of combined air tactics, hone techniques and procedures while strengthening security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Ricker)

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, awaits the next flight during exercise Cope North (CN) 20, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb 27, 2020. Exercise CN is an annual U.S. Pacific Air Forces multilateral field training exercise with participants from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the Royal Australian Air Force. The primary intent of CN is to enhance coordination of combined air tactics, hone techniques and procedures while strengthening security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Ricker)

This story was originally published July 2, 2020, by ProPublica

The U.S. Marine Corps acknowledged in a new high-level review that its original investigation into a fatal 2018 midair crash off the coast of Japan was inaccurate and incomplete, led by a commander who was more concerned with how his findings would be perceived by his bosses than getting to the truth.

The new review reexamined the December 2018 crash between an American fighter jet and a refueling tanker during a nighttime training exercise. The Marine Corps’ original investigation into the crash, which killed six Marines, largely blamed the squadron itself, painting the men as reckless aviators who flouted safety protocols and abused prescription drugs.

But last year, a ProPublica investigation based on confidential internal documents and interviews with military officials revealed the Marine Corps’ public narrative omitted systemic failings well known to superiors up the chain of command. The squadron, responsible for being ready to respond to threats from North Korea, had been deprived of adequate training and equipment, and its repeated pleas for help from superiors in the months before the crash went unaddressed.

The Marine Corps’ new investigation, launched in September 2019 and shared this week with the families of the service members who were killed, criticizes the commander responsible for the original investigation in unusually personal terms. The new review was led by the most experienced aviator in the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, and delivered to its second-highest-ranking officer, Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary L. Thomas.

According to the new report, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, Col. Samuel Schoolfield, whose superior had received some of the warnings about Squadron 242’s plight before the collision, admitted that he had been “uncomfortable investigating possible contributing factors” up the chain of command, including at his boss’s level.

Schoolfield was “concerned about how the focus and findings” of his investigation “would be perceived by his leadership, and more importantly, how it would affect him personally,” the new report stated. “He chose to place his personal aspirations over his professional duties and failed to fully investigate all the facts, circumstances, individuals, and organizations that may have contributed to the 2018 mishap.”

Because of the faulty investigation, the report found, the Marine Corps “lost trust with the American people, the families of those who perished, and the young men and women who fly our aircraft.”

Schoolfield’s report cast members of the squadron as cowboys who ignored safety protocols, singling out the Hornet pilot who was killed, Capt. Jahmar Resilard. The investigation’s conclusions made Resilard’s mother, Joni Resilard, feel as if her son were responsible for the tragedy.

When the Marines visited her in Florida to discuss Schoolfield’s investigation, “I was so stunned I couldn’t react,” she said. So, when this week Marine Corps officials were once again in her home to reveal the results of the latest investigation into the accident, she said, “I let them have it.”

“I had carried it for so long from the first report,” Resilard said. She finally had a little relief when they told her that “even the best of the best would have had difficulty making those maneuvers under those circumstances.”

“It helped vindicate my son,” she said.

U.S. Marines with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA(AW)) 242 stand in formation after completing unit level training at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, March 11. VMFA(AW)-242 is also known as “The Bats,” and is stationed at Iwakuni, Japan. Photo by Lance Cpl. Lennon Dregoiw/U.S. Marine Corps.

Schoolfield, the review found, had erred on a number of topics, including whether prescription drugs contributed to the crash, whether the Hornet pilot was qualified to fly the mission that night and whether an earlier midair mishap had been properly investigated. The new report also found that the Marine Corps aviators in the region were victims of inadequate training and a lack of qualified maintenance staff — things that were beyond their control and about which they had complained repeatedly before the crash.

When reached by phone, Schoolfield declined to comment, saying that he had not had time to review the report. The report did not recommend disciplinary action against Schoolfield.

Like the earlier investigation, the latest inquiry did not conclude that blame for the systemic readiness problems rested with any individual members of the Marine Corps’ top brass. It also did not recommend disciplinary action against the commanders immediately above the squadron, Maj. Gen. Thomas Weidley and Col. Mark Palmer.

However, Marine Corps officials ordered that the two commanders receive formal counseling, according to one person with knowledge of the case.

“Appropriate level of administrative action was taken regarding the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general and Marine Aircraft Group 12 commanding officer,” a Marine Corps spokesman said.

ProPublica sought to contact Palmer and Weidley for comment but did not hear back before publication.

Confidential Marine Corps documents reviewed last year by ProPublica drew a damning picture of high-level culpability and systemic dysfunction. Senior leaders made admissions about their own lapses and gave alarming assessments about the state of the Marine Corps’ forces stationed abroad. Top commanders knew aviators weren’t being properly trained and were being sent out with faulty equipment. Raising safety concerns “is like the boy crying wolf,” a confidential report found. “Risk is accepted with the mindset that this is ‘just the way things are’ or we ‘just make do with what we’ve got.’”

Lt. Col. James Compton, who was ousted as Squadron 242’s commander after the crash and is now retired, told ProPublica the new investigation was an improvement, making plain the systemic issues with how underprepared the U.S. forces were in one of the globe’s most volatile regions. But Compton, who had warned again and again of his squadron’s vulnerability, said it still “gives all supervisory folks above the squadron a pass in the end.”

The new investigation, called a consolidated disposition authority, was led by Hedelund, who worked with a team of a dozen experts on aviation maintenance, the aircraft involved and medical and legal issues. The group traveled to Japan for interviews, analyzed flight data and reviewed Marine Corps memos going back years.

U.S. Marines Corps Maj. Andrew Kelemen, commanding officer of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA(AW)) 242, and Capt. John Baum, a weapon systems officer with VMFA(AW)-242, prepare for take off in support of exercise Cope North (CN) 20, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb 27. Photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Ricker/U.S. Marine Corps.

Like past reviews of the crash, including ProPublica’s, it found fault with the decisions made by the Marines in the air that night. After the F/A-18 Hornet pilot finished refueling off the tanker, for example, he was ordered to fly off to the left in a nonstandard maneuver, eventually leading him to lose situational awareness and crash into the tanker.

“Make no mistake, the aircrew in the 2018 mishap made poor decisions and did not comply with multiple controls in pre-flight and in execution that ended in tragedy,” the report states.

More broadly, the review found that despite Japan being one of the most challenging assignments for Marine aviators, the most talented were not typically being assigned there.

“In practice, current assignment policies have pushed the weakest aviators to Iwakuni in statistically disproportionate numbers,” the report found.

The report did credit the Marine Corps’ top military officer with recently acknowledging the issue in the Pacific and instructing commanders to work to send their “highest quality” people there.

The report also praised forces in the Pacific for working closely with the Japanese in recent months to improve coordination in the event of emergencies. The U.S. outsources its search and rescue to Japanese defense forces, though their response time varies depending on their own missions.

In the Dec. 6, 2018, crash, the Hornet pilot, Resilard, ejected after the crash and remained in the Pacific for more than nine hours until he was found because rescue teams were slow to launch and his location equipment failed. His smartwatch data showed he was likely alive for most of that time, though the new report suggests he may not have survived his injuries even had he been found sooner.

The new review found that coordination for rescue efforts had improved, but that response time “is no different today as it was on the morning of 6 December 2018.” The team recommended that U.S. forces in Japan develop an electronic means of knowing real-time Japanese search-and-rescue availability to help mitigate risk during their flights.

The new report addressed a number of other issues reported on by ProPublica last year, including questions about the reliability of the squadron’s equipment and the Corps’ ability to learn from past mistakes and implement reforms.

The new Marine Corps report defended the night vision goggles assigned to Squadron 242 that had been the subject of complaints from aviators and others about their effectiveness. The equipment has been found to blur and the data projected on the image can sometimes invert, possibly disorienting pilots. Still, the new review found that the glitch is rare, that the goggles are an improvement over past models, and that aviators should turn off the possibly confusing feature of the goggles when doing refueling missions.

In its investigation, ProPublica found that the location beacons of both aviators who ejected from the Hornet after the crash failed in the water. Senior leaders knew that model of location beacon was flawed. It had malfunctioned in at least two prior mishaps. But the Marine Corps did not issue replacements, so Squadron 242’s commanding officer obtained a commercial brand of beacon available to hikers and hunters. The Marine Corps, however, ordered that they not be used during an inspection soon before the crash because they were not authorized by the Corps.

The new review confirmed that the off-the-shelf location beacons were banned because they were found to be unauthorized.

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kevin Campbell, outgoing commanding officer of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242 (VMFA(AW)-242), spoke during a change of command ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Sept. 6, 2019. Photo by Cpl. Seth Rosenberg/U.S. Marine Corps.

“A location device that functions automatically could have sped up (search and rescue) operations leading to a likely earlier recovery of the Profane 12 aircrew,” the review found, referring to the downed Hornet.

The Marine Corps has also failed to effectively educate its people on the lessons from past mishaps and implement reforms. The report found that was due in part because so-called safety investigations, which allow witnesses to be totally candid without fear of disciplinary action, are cloaked in secrecy and difficult to access.

How those investigations are currently distributed blocks easy access to personnel who need them, while at the same time failing to “prevent malicious leaks of privileged information as seen with the 2018 mishap” — an apparent reference to ProPublica reviewing a copy of the confidential investigation of the 2018 crash and reporting on it.

The recommendations from these investigations have in the past been ignored, the review found, or are sometimes so broad as to be meaningless.

The most common recommendation, to brief the findings to all aircrew, “has become a cliche in naval aviation,” the report states. “It lacks teeth as a recommendation, is not tracked … and is so commonplace that there are now more events to brief than there is time available.”

“Safety recommendations are made,” the report stated, “but not acted upon.”

Resilard’s mother now has to live with that fact.

She said she lamented the potentially lifesaving changes to equipment the service could have made, the lack of discipline initially for anyone in command higher than the squadron and the way the Marine Corps seemed to have just wanted it all “swept under the carpet.”

Robert Faturechi
Robert Faturechi

Robert Faturechi is a reporter at ProPublica covering money in politics.

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