Court-martial of female pilot could be embarrassing Air Force secretary seeks to avoid unpopular trial


WASHINGTON -- Less than a week before the court-martial of the country's first female B-52 pilot on adultery and other charges, the secretary of the Air Force has told associates she would consider allowing the officer to resign with an honorable discharge, senior Air Force officials said yesterday.

Reeling from the negative public reaction to the prosecution of 26-year-old 2nd Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force secretary, Sheila E. Widnall, is struggling to find a way to avoid what she anticipates will be the further spectacle of a high-profile court-martial, the officials said.

Flinn, a million-dollar-plus Air Force investment who was hand-picked to fly Widnall in a B-52 last year, would not have to plead guilty to any of the charges against her under Air Force procedures.

Under normal Air Force rules, people facing court-martial are entitled to ask to be given the chance to resign, a procedure known as resignation in lieu of court-martial, or RILO.

There is no guarantee that their requests would be granted, and they still might be required to plead guilty to some charge. In these cases, an honorable discharge is seldom granted.

What makes Widnall's position particularly delicate is that under military rules, she cannot formally offer leniency to Flinn in exchange for avoiding a trial.

Widnall is even prohibited from suggesting such an offer to officers in Flinn's chain of command.

Flinn is facing charges of adultery, fraternization, disobeying a direct order and making a false sworn statement.

Even though she has admitted at least some of the charges on national television, she has questioned whether the crimes warrant a court-martial and has not yet entered a plea.

Under military rules, only Flinn can initiate a request that she resign rather than face court-martial, but she has not done so.

The Air Force approved 10 out of 23 requests for resignation instead of courts-martial in 1994, 10 of 49 requests in 1995 and seven of 38 in 1996.

In the past few days, the Air Force has received hundreds of letters and E-mail messages that are largely sympathetic to Flinn.

One person even sent a Western Union telegram demanding that the Air Force end its persecution of her.

Pub Date: 5/15/97

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