JACKSONVILLE -- Crew members of a C-130 say they were surprised when they suddenly encountered fog about a mile from a Kuwaiti runway last year.
Flying through the fog, an Air Force report says, the plane slammed into the ground, killing three passengers.
Testifying Monday in a military court hearing on charges against the pilot, a crew member said Capt. Darron A. Haughn acted quickly to try to pull up the plane, but they nonetheless felt a thud that rocked them in their seats.
The cargo plane, carrying 86 military passengers to the Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, had hit the ground about a half mile short of the runway -- but the crew did not realize until later that they had missed their target so badly.
The plane, minus its landing gear, climbed up again, dumped fuel over the Persian Gulf and eventually landed on its belly at the Kuwait City International Airport from which it had departed.
Haughn is charged with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty. The hearing that began Monday could lead to a court-martial, some lesser punishment, or the revision or dismissal of the charges.
Three others face nonjudicial, administrative discipline for their roles in the crash: the plane's co-pilot, 1st Lt. Karrina DeGarmo; the navigator on the flight, Capt. Russell Hedden III; and the plane's flight engineer, Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Morgan.
DeGarmo and Hedden testified Monday that, during the 10-minute flight from Kuwait City to Al Jaber, they could see the airport from miles away. A weather report one hour before the early morning take-off on Dec. 10, 1999, had listed the visibility at one mile at the airport. Another check before takeoff showed the visibility had increased and Hedden said he assumed conditions were improving at the airport.
About one mile from the runway the plane was within 500 feet of the ground -- an appropriate approach height, he said.
"It was about a mile that we were at when we lost visual contact with the runway," Hedden testified. "Suddenly we were in a cloud...I remember the engineer calling for a go-around."
Haughn accelerated the engines to try to rise in the air, but "I felt like the airplane had hit something," Hedden said.
DeGarmo, testifying under immunity, said "We entered the fog bank ... it all happened pretty quick and we hit the ground."
Three passengers were killed when shafts that raised and lowered the craft's main landing gear broke through the metal skin of the plane upon impact. While climbing again, the plane hit an airport instrument and the landing gear fell off, leaving gaping holes in the fuselage.
DeGarmo said she helped pull the plane back up in the air, but did not realize until told by investigators a week or two later that the plane had hit short of the runway as opposed to the edge of the pavement.
Government attorneys questioned why the C-130 attempted to land without using an instrument landing system as the crew had discussed doing before taking off. DeGarmo said the instrument landing was an option only when approaching the runway from one direction, but the air base control tower instructed the plane to land from the opposite direction.
Hedden praised the pilot for his response after the impact.
"I thought he did a really good job with recovering the airplane," he said.
Under questioning by defense attorney Frank Spinner, Hedden said he followed his duty during the plane's accident and said Haughn did nothing wrong that he knew of. Haughn, who had recently been promoted to a commander pilot from co-pilot, had less than 100 hours of experience as a chief pilot at the time of the accident.
The crew from the 61st Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base was making just its second mission together and had arrived at Kuwait from the Little Rock Air Force Base just days before the accident. Hedden testified that they had received no briefing either in the United State or Kuwait about any special flying procedures to be used in the Persian Gulf.
Air Force officials said March 31 that an investigation board concluded the accident stemmed from pilot and crew error.
The hearing was called by Brig. Gen. Paul J. Fletcher, the 314th Airlift Wing Commander, who appointed Lt. Col. Gregory Pavlik as the hearing's presiding officer. Pavlik is to make a recommendation to Fletcher sometime after the conclusion of the hearing.
Fletcher could decide to change or dismiss, call for a special court-martial or recommend to Maj. Gen. George Williams that he convene a general court-martial.
A general court-martial is like a felony trial in which a conviction could bring prison time and dismissal from the military; a special court martial has three instead of five members on the panel and can impose a maximum punishment of a reprimand and a two-thirds cut in a person's pay.