September 14, 2002
SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
Two F-16 pilots could face military criminal trials
By Otto Kreisher and Lisa Kernek
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – A senior Air Force general yesterday was
considering whether to order military criminal trials for two
Illinois Air National Guard pilots accused of involuntary
manslaughter because of a "friendly fire" bombing incident in
Afghanistan that killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded
Charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and disobeying
orders were recommended against Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj.
William Umbach by the officer who investigated the fatal April
17 incident. Both pilots are assigned to the 170th Fighter
Squadron based at the Springfield, Ill., Capitol Airport.
The investigating officer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen T.
Sargeant, rejected the pilots' claims they were defending
themselves against what they thought was hostile ground fire.
He concluded that they acted irresponsibly and in violation of
rules of engagement and Air Force procedures.
Although Schmidt dropped the 500-pound bomb on the
Canadian soldiers conducting a nighttime live-fire training
exercise, Umbach was cited for the same offenses because he
failed to exercise his responsibility as flight leader to prevent the
If taken to a general court-martial – the highest level of military
criminal action – conviction on all the charges could result in
more than 60 years in prison and dishonorable discharges for
the two F-16 pilots.
Before proceeding to the next step, however, Lt. Gen. Bruce
Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force
Base, La., must review the allegations.
Carlson's options include referring the charges to a general
court-martial or to a special court-martial – a lower-level
tribunal that has limited sentencing powers. Or he could deal
with the charges by nonjudicial or administrative actions,
including dismissal from the Air National Guard, said 2nd Lt.
Jennifer Ferrau, an 8th Air Force public affairs officer.
Given the serious nature of the allegations and because the
deadly incident has stirred strong emotions in Canada, the
nonjudicial options are considered unlikely.
If Carlson decides the charges warrant a general court-martial,
he must order an Article 32 pre-trial inquiry, a process similar
to a civilian grand jury, according to the Uniform Code of
Ferrau could not say when Carlson would make his decision.
Carlson was assigned responsibility for dealing with the deadly
incident after the pilots' attorneys last month expressed concern
that the general who commands Air Force units in Afghanistan
could not deal fairly with the case.
If the charges go to trial, defense attorneys are sure to stress the
pilots' right of self-defense in a combat situation and the sloppy
command structure that was cited in the investigation board's
Sargeant also recommended administrative action against Col.
David Nichols for weak leadership. Nichols commanded the Air
Force unit to which the 170th Squadron was attached during its
Among the command mistakes described in the lengthy report
released yesterday was the failure to inform the F-16 pilots or
the crew of an AWACS airborne control plane monitoring their
flight about the Canadian training exercise.
"We're going to attempt to show that it was a terrible accident,
that it was not a criminal action," David Beck, Umbach's
attorney, said. "He's not guilty of any criminal misconduct or
any criminal negligence. What needs to be done is find out all the
Schmidt's attorney, Charles Gittins, similarly said his client
"honestly and reasonably believed troops were directing hostile
fire at he and his wingman and that his actions were required in
self-defense pursuant to the standing rules of engagement."