The family of a contractor who was killed in a strafing accident during a 2017 Air Force training exercise has reached a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against the service.
Charles Holbrook, a retired Air Force master sergeant and tactical air control party airman, was fatally shot Jan. 31, 2017, at the White Sands Missile Range near Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. An F-16 Fighting Falcon, flown by a student pilot on a nighttime training mission, mistook a row of rental cars in an observation area for the target and fired on them.
Holbrook was struck in the head with a 20mm round at about 7:18 p.m. and died an hour and a half later at the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
His wife of more than 22 years, Belen, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Air Force and two unidentified F-16 pilots — a student and an instructor pilot — in January in the U.S. District Court of the District of New Mexico. A settlement was reached and approved Wednesday, which will split the award evenly between Belen Holbrook and their daughter, Alyssa.
In an interview Friday, the Holbrooks' attorney, Randi McGinn, said Holbrook’s death should never have happened, and she hopes the Air Force has taken steps to prevent similar accidents from occurring.
“This is an example of, there are no accidents, only poor planning,” McGinn said.
McGinn said the amount of the settlement was confidential. She declined to characterize it aside from saying it was less than the full $24.6 million in damages the family initially sought, and describing it as “enough to take care of his wife and family.”
“They’re heartbroken,” McGinn said. “This was the love of [Belen Holbrook’s] life. His daughter is heartbroken too. … We hope the Air Force learns from this, and it never happens to anyone’s husband or father again.”
The settlement was first reported by the Alamogordo Daily News.
Belen Holbrook’s complaint alleged that the Air Force didn’t take proper safety measures to ensure the safety of civilians during live-fire nighttime training for F-16 pilots, such as by keeping them away from the live-fire area and ensuring the target didn’t look the same as the civilians' observation area.
On that night, Holbrook was demonstrating a laser near a line of rental cars that was aligned in a similar way to the trucks that made up the F-16 pilots' target. The student pilot mistakenly opened fire at the group of rental cars, the complaint said, blew up one of the cars and shot Holbrook in the head.
The accident investigation board report, which was completed in September 2017, concluded that the student pilot was responsible for Holbrook’s death when he misinterpreted his instrument readings and mistakenly thought the observation point was the target. The mishap instructor pilot also substantially contributed to the death by failing to provide adequate supervision and instruction, the report found.
An airman on the ground was also struck by bullet fragments and injured, the Air Force said in the investigation report.
Holbrook was a business development manager at Sensors Unlimited, which is a division of United Technologies Aerospace Division, the complaint said. He was in New Mexico to show members of the Dutch air force a laser imaging device, and the Air Force invited him to demonstrate the device at a nighttime training exercise at White Sands' Red Rio bombing range.
It was the first time the two “rookie pilots,” as the complaint called them, had performed a nighttime live-fire exercise. The complaint also said it was the first time the student pilot who shot Holbrook had worn night vision goggles while flying the F-16 and the first time he was to conduct a high-angle strafe of unlit targets.
There were also two instructor pilots, each in their own F-16s, and 10 people on the ground, including Holbrook, two Army ground liaison officers, four joint terminal attack controllers, from two different Air Force units, who were training to direct air-support fire and three Dutch JTACs, the complaint said.
The groups had not worked together before, the complaint said, and no members of the ground crew had attended the pilots' mission briefing. The complaint said the ground crew met for “a superficial and short safety briefing” beforehand, which was “an insufficient amount of preparation” for a complicated night mission.
Holbrook was not provided any safety equipment — at least, none that fit him — such as a helmet or flak jacket.
The instructor pilot for the student pilot who killed Holbrook designed a training run to test how well he could hit the right target in the dark and at low altitude, with both real and simulated friendly forces nearby, the complaint said.
The second instructor pilot told investigators that he thought it was “unusually complicated,” and it was the first time in his three-year tenure as a Holloman instructor that such a close air support training mission would be flown with four jets. Typically, only two jets would be in the air in such a scenario, the complaint said.
The mishap instructor pilot also gave a confusing explanation of the training run, the complaint said, which left the other instructor and student pilots unsure whether there would be only real people playing friendly forces, or also simulated friendlies, and where the real people would be stationed.
Ultimately, the observers and ground crew — serving as the real friendly forces — were stationed less than a half-mile away from the target, the complaint said.
The target was a line of vehicles on a dirt circle with a road going north of the circle, in almost an identical configuration to the vehicles where Holbrook and the other observers were placed.
“At night, in the dark, these two targets would look the same,” the complaint said.
The personnel on the ground had been told the JTACs with them — and only the JTACS — would make the decision to fire, the complaint said. But that’s not what happened.
The training exercise began to grow more confused and chaotic as the mishap instructor pilot took control of the jets' weapons release from the JTACs on the ground, according to the complaint. The other student pilot later said things began to feel “rushed,” the complaint said.
The mishap student pilot took three mistaken passes over the observation point, the complaint said. On the third pass, the mishap instructor pilot cleared the student pilot to fire on what was believed to be the target. He fired 155 Vulcan cannon rounds, blowing up one car, injuring an airman and fatally wounding Holbrook.
The plaintiffs argued that the Air Force was “reckless and negligent” when it failed to properly train and supervise the pilots and ground crew involved in the live-fire exercise, resulting in Holbrook’s death.
The complaint also said the Air Force failed by not giving Holbrook appropriate safety equipment or warning him that the pilots would have to distinguish between the target and the nearby “friendlies,” putting him at risk, and allowing the instructor pilot to plan and carry out a nighttime training mission that was too complicated for the student pilot and others.
The Air Force also didn’t follow safety protocol forbidding a student pilot from firing live ammunition if he wasn’t sure he had the right target. The student and instructor also didn’t follow protocol when they ignored red flag warnings from the first two unsuccessful strafing runs over the observation point, and failed to slow down or stop the training mission when things started to go wrong, the complaint said.
According to the Air Force Personnel Center, Holbrook joined the Air Force in July 1982 and separated nearly 23 years later, in March 2005. He last served at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida as an operations superintendent.
His awards and decorations included the Bronze Star, the Air Force Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and both the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian versions of the Kuwait Liberation Medal that were awarded to veterans of the Gulf War. He was 53 at the time of his death.
McGinn said the Holbrook family has been touched by members of the Air Force and the JTAC community who offered to help them.
“The Air Force has treated them with great compassion,” McGinn said. “They want to thank all those who reached out to them, who supported them in a difficult time.”
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.