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C-17 pilot cleared in parachutist's death

Dec. 14, 2012 - 05:14PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 14, 2012 - 05:14PM  |  
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A C-17 pilot was found not guilty of all charges in connection with the death of an Army parachutist who died after being blown off course at Marshall Field at Fort Harrison, Mont.

Capt. Jared Foley, of the 7th Airlift Squadron, 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., had been charged with dereliction of duty and reckless endangerment. He was aircraft commander during the July 10, 2011, incident.

A jury of 10 officers returned the not guilty verdict Dec. 14, after three days of testimony.

At Foley's court-martial, witnesses testified that an Army safety officer on the ground and the Army jumpmaster in the aircraft encouraged Foley to go ahead with the fatal parachute drop, according to The News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma, Wash.

Killed in the parachute drop was Sgt. Francis Campion, of the West Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group. He landed on the rooftop of a building, and then a gust of wind caught his parachute and caused him to fall 24 feet to his death. He was wearing a steerable SF-10 parachute at the time, officials said.

The C-17 crew had wanted to end the exercise after a previous jumper appeared to be blown off course, but the safety officer told them that the parachutist had steered his parachute incorrectly, according to The News Tribune. He and the jumpmaster persuaded the crew to go ahead with the jump that resulted in Campion's death.

Despite what the drop zone safety officer and jumpmaster said, prosecutors argued that Foley should not have gone ahead with the drop because Air Force regulations required the exercise to end when one of the jumpers landed outside of the drop zone, the newspaper reported.

"Foley made a decision that made an already inherently dangerous mission even more dangerous," the newspaper quoted prosecutor Capt. Kennard Keeton as saying.

Both the prosecution and Foley's defense attorney declined to comment for this story.

An investigation by the West Virginia Army National Guard found no misconduct on behalf of Army personnel involved with the jump, said Lt. Col. Kelly Ambrose, staff judge advocate for the West Virginia National Guard.

When asked why the jumpmaster and drop zone safety officer were not also being held accountable for Campion's death, Ambrose said that since an Air Force aircraft was involved, Foley was required to follow Air Force protocol, which dictates that he make decisions based on information from the aircraft and control tower, not the drop zone safety officer.

"The pilot made a decision based info that was outside his protocol," Ambrose told Air Force Times. "So you can't blame the Army guy for something the pilot is trained to do."

The fact that Foley was not charged with manslaughter indicates his command wanted to send a message to other pilots about abiding by Air Force rules, but did not want to send Foley to prison on a homicide conviction, said retired Army Lt. Col. Geoff Corn, a former judge advocate officer who now teaches at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

"It seems a little bit harsh externally, but as a matter of deterrence, sending a message to other pilots that ultimately it's their mission, they are the flight commander and if the regulations say don't do it, you don't do it — you can't trump those regulations by looking at other factors," Corn told Air Force Times.

The other side of the argument is that pilots should be free to make reasonable decisions based on the circumstances, Corn said. In this case, Foley decided to continue with the exercise based on the recommendations of experts.

"It's very important that we remember the touchstone of reasonableness does not mean you are always right," Corn said. "You can be reasonable and make a mistake. You can think of a police officer who shoots a suspect and then finds out that the weapon was a toy: That was in fact a mistake but it was a reasonable mistake."

The Air Force's decision to charge Foley came as a shock to many C-17 pilots, said a C-17 pilot who did not want to be identified.

"I think the C-17 community will welcome this verdict," the pilot said in an email. "This is a dangerous profession, in which aircrew must sometimes make difficult judgment calls in ambiguous circumstances. Many of us thought a court-martial was excessively harsh, and are happy to see Capt. Foley found innocent."

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