WASHINGTON -- Three Air Force commanders who oversaw the squadron that flew Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and 34 others to their deaths in Croatia last month have been relieved of command, the Air Force announced yesterday.
It was the first official punishment after the April 3 crash of the Air Force transport plane that slammed into a mountain outside Dubrovnik during a storm.
The Air Force has been hurrying a broad investigation, which is complete enough to warrant disciplinary action, officials said. Results of the investigation are to be made public in about a week.
The Air Force did not say precisely why the men were relieved, vTC but said their commander had lost confidence in their ability "to effectively discharge their responsibilities."
Many questions were raised after the crash, including why top officials were being flown in a 22-year-old airplane; why the plane had no "black boxes" to record flight data; why the crew acted against Air Force landing guidelines; and why they tried to fly in a storm to an unfamiliar airport that had primitive navigational aids.
The pilots, who were apparently trying to use those aids to make an instrument approach, drifted off course and wound up 1.8 miles northwest of Dubrovnik's Cilipi airport runway, crashing into a 2,300-foot mountain.
Everyone aboard the plane, a military version of the Boeing 737, was killed.
The Air Force identified the three officers who were relieved as Brig. Gen. William E. Stevens, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing, based in Ramstein, Germany; and his two chief deputies, Col. Roger W. Hansen, the wing's vice commander; and Col. John E. Mazurowski, who directed the wing's daily flying operations.
The action against them was taken by Maj. Gen. Charles R. Heflebower, commander of the 17th Air Force in Europe.
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Col. Doug Kennett, said: "The action that's taken does not infer any judgment regarding the cause of the accident or the involvement of these three individuals. It indicates simply lost confidence in their ability to carry out their duties.
"We say that they've been relieved of command," he said. "They have not been forced out of the service in any way, shape or form, and they're awaiting reassignment."
Brown and an entourage of Commerce Department officials and private businessmen were aboard an Air Force CT-43 transport jet being flown by the 76th Airlift Squadron, one of the 86th wing's two flying squadrons.
Stevens, Hansen and Mazurowski were the senior officers responsible for the flight.
"Ultimately, General Stevens is responsible for anything and everything that happened in his unit, his wing, regardless of which unit in his wing," Doug Moore, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force command in Europe, said in a telephone interview.
"Of course, Hansen is in that chain of command, and then Mazurowski was in that chain of command, too."
Stevens, who has had a distinguished, 25-year Air Force career, was in the news shortly after the Brown crash when it was revealed that he had fired the 76th Squadron's commander five days before the crash.
The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported at the time that the commander, Lt. Col. James Albright, had been fired after he expressed concerns about the safety of flying dignitaries around the former Yugoslavia.
Stevens said he had fired Albright because he regularly operated outside the chain of command. Both men agreed that Albright's safety worries concerned gunfire from hostile ground forces more than weather or airport navigational aids.
It was not clear yesterday whether anyone else might be punished in connection with the crash, or if further measures might be taken against the three officers.
In other serious mishaps, Article 32 investigations -- similar to grand jury probes -- have been ordered, followed by courts martial on criminal charges.
In the 1994 "friendly fire" shootdown of an American helicopter by U.S. jet fighters over Iraq, serious charges, including negligent homicide, were lodged against six officers. But only one was court-martialed, and he was acquitted last June.
"The Air Force has been very clear, and [Chief of Staff] General [Ronald R.] Fogleman, as you know, has been very clear about accountability as being one of the most important things within the military service and in the Air Force," said spokesman Kennett.
"If anyone else needs to be held accountable, I'm sure they will. But we certainly don't know at this juncture, and I wouldn't want to speculate. We will very soon have an accident report, and that should have all the facts for us."
Since the crash, Defense Secretary William J. Perry has ordered that all military passenger planes be equipped with so-called "black boxes," which record cockpit conversation and flight data and can help investigators find the cause of crashes, and with better on-board navigation equipment.
Pub Date: 5/31/96