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Pilot Error Caused Bombing Deaths at Kuwaiti Range

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2001 – U.S. Central Command officials have determined pilot error was the main cause of the deadly March 12 bombing accident at Kuwaits Udairi Range.

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot incorrectly identified an observation post as his target and dropped three 500-pound bombs that killed five Americans and a New Zealander and injured 11 others. Six Kuwaiti service members were among the injured.

Immediately after the accident, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, CENTCOM commander in chief, appointed Marine Lt. Gen. Michael P. DeLong to lead an investigation. DeLongs team reported their findings to Franks April 7. Franks accepted the boards findings April 23 with a few minor changes regarding possible punishment of key individuals.

Release of the results was delayed until the families of those killed were apprised of the findings.

The report identifies pilot error as the main cause of the accident, but with three contributing factors:

  • The forward air controller airborne pilot used nonstandard terminology when speaking to the pilot on the bombing run.
  • The ground forward air controller lost situational awareness at a critical point, reducing the time he had to call for an abort of the mission.
  • Conditions at Udairi Range made the observation post and the target difficult to distinguish.

According to the report, the pilot, Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, was required to transmit, Target in sight; friendlies in sight, before he'd have received a cleared hot command freeing him to drop his bombs. He apparently never made that call and released his ordnance before being given the cleared hot command, the report states.

Zimmerman told the board he was deeply saddened by the accident but declined to be interviewed on the advice of legal counsel, the report stated.

The forward air controller airborne pilot, Navy Lt. Patrick T. Mowles, contributed to the accident by telling Zimmerman, good nose position, not a standard transmission for this type of mission.

This resulted in a warm fuzzy (false situational awareness) by the [ground forward air controller] and may have resulted in a warm fuzzy by the incident pilot during his attack, the report states.

The forward air controller airborne radar intercept officer, Navy Lt. Andrea M. Powers, provided information to the board when she was ordered to testify under a grant of immunity, according to the report.

Prior to releasing his bombs, Zimmerman had asked to have the target illuminated. This allegedly caused the ground forward air controller, Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy B. Crusing, to turn his attention to the individual on the ground whose job it was to illuminate the target with an infrared pointer. This diversion of his attention delayed his noticing the pilot had targeted the OP.

When he did notice, he immediately transmitted, Abort, abort. But the bombs had already been released and exploded seconds later. Crusing was seriously injured and was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and later to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Investigators interviewed him by telephone from Walter Reed.

The report also noted that range personnel were not required to wear Kevlar vests or helmets at Udairi Range. The investigation determined use of these devices could have potentially protected those killed and injured and recommended they be used at the range from now on.

After studying the report, Franks left the final decision regarding possible punishment of those involved up to the Central Command component commanders of the individuals. The boards report recommended appropriate administrative or disciplinary action up to and including nonjudicial punishment be taken against the pilot and that appropriate administrative action be taken against the others two involved.

My modification does not in any way reflect my view as to what action may or may not be appropriate, Franks wrote in a memorandum to the component commanders. It is intended to assure the appropriate service official of his or her complete discretion in the matter.

Franks agreed with the boards recommendation to improve the planning and coordination of live-fire exercises at Udairi Range. While we must train as we fight, commanders understand that we must do everything we can to ensure that the training environment, while realistic, is as safe as it can possibly be, he wrote.

He gave the service commanders in the region 45 days to identify ways to make the range safer. Our responsibility is to take the action necessary to preclude reoccurrence of such tragic accidents in the future, Franks wrote.

The complete report can be downloaded from the Internet at www.centcom.mil/kuwait.

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