WASHINGTON -- In an extremely rare reaction to a 'friendly fire' incident, the Air Force announced yesterday that it has charged an F-15 fighter pilot with 26 counts of negligent &L; homicide in the mistaken shooting down earlier this year of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters over Iraq.
Five other Air Force crew members were charged with various counts of dereliction of duty in the April 14 accident in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Twenty-six people, including 15 Americans, were killed when the Air Force crew members mistook the aircraft for Russian-built Hind helicopters flown by the Iraqi military.
The harsh charges, which could result in a lengthy prison sentence for the pilot, mirror the tough stance the Pentagon has taken in dealing with one of the worst self-inflicted tragedies in U.S. military history.
While friendly fire accidents have occurred frequently in the past, including the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Pentagon officials said they knew of no recent instances in which military service members were court-martialed on criminal charges for their mistakes.
But Maj. Tom LaRock, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, and others said that in the helicopter accident it appears that the Air Force's evidence against the pilot, Lt. Col. Randy W. May, clearly points to negligence.
"He was directed by the lead pilot to confirm that the helicopters were Iraqi Hinds, and he didn't do that," Colonel LaRock said. "Instead, he gave the go-ahead to shoot them down."
Col. Douglas Kennett, another Air Force spokesman, in describing why the charges were so harsh, added simply: "Because he was one of the pilots that fired the missiles that shot down the aircraft."
As it turned out, the helicopters were U.S. Army Black Hawks that were ferrying members of a multina tional military council touring Kurdish villages.
The Pentagon has said that the accident was caused by "errors, omissions and failures" and that the crew did not monitor the entire course of the helicopters or alert the fighter pilots that the helicopters were actually friendly aircraft operating in the no-fly zone.
Colonel May, a veteran with almost 20 years in the Air Force, served as the pilot of the second plane in the two-aircraft formation that fired on the helicopters over Iraq. He is also charged with two counts of dereliction of duty in addition to the 26 charges of negligent homicide.
The dereliction-of-duty charges involve his alleged failure to notify the lead pilot that he could not confirm the identity of the two helicopters, as well as his "negligent failure" to prevent the shooting engagement.
If convicted of all counts at a general court-martial, Colonel May could receive a year in prison for each of the 26 homicide charges, three months' confinement on each dereliction count, and dismissal from the service and forfeiture of pay.
nTC Some military law experts were surprised that homicide charges were filed, an indication, they said, that the evidence must be strong against Colonel May.
"They must have concluded there is pretty strong evidence of negligence for them to prefer general court-martial charges carrying double-digit years in maximum confine ment penalties," said Jonathan Tomes, a Chicago expert who is the author of the "Service Member's Legal Guide."
Colonel May, who has not flown since the accident, is assigned to the 53rd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany. He could not be reached for comment.
Colonel May shot down one of the Black Hawks. The other helicopter was destroyed by the other pilot, whose identity has not been released.
The status of the case against that second pilot, who flew the lead plane, remains unclear. Pentagon officials said commanders Europe are reviewing his role.
The other five airmen charged with dereliction of duty were part of an AWACS team that provides airborne radar systems designed to identify aircraft for pilots. If convicted, they also could be sentenced to dismissal and forfeiture of pay, and three months' confinement on each charge.