Green Ramp Disaster Re-Investigation

On March 23rd of 1994, a terrible mid-air collision took place between an Air Force F-16 and C-130 on final approach to a runway at Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina.  The F-16 pilot and his passenger ejected safely, but the F-16 crashed into the adjacent aircraft parking ramp and collided with a parked C-141.  This collision caused a huge fireball which traveled along with the remnants of the F-16 to end of the ramp where 500 army paratroopers were staging for a practice para drop.   Twenty four paratroopers eventually died and over eighty were injured.  The damaged C-130 landed safely.  The disaster made national news and was recognized by President Clinton who visited the disaster site two days later.  I was involved with both the original accident investigation and a re-investigation conducted a few years later.  (Green Ramp Disaster on Wikipedia)

Diagram of the Green Ramp Disaster which occurred on 23 March, 1994 at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.

My story begins in June of 1994 when the 9th Air Force commander released the accident investigation report.  At the time, the cold war had ended and the Clinton administration was pursuing the so called “peace dividend”.  Vice President Gore was in charge of the “Re-inventing Government” program which was reducing the defense budget.   The Pentagon was downsizing and closing bases as a consequence.  A base closure is a highly charged political process.  No congressman wants a military base to close in his or her district.  These base closings resulted in forced dissimilar aircraft operations at the remaining bases  and the creation of a new organization called a composite wing.   A composite wing  was in place at Pope Air Force Base on the fateful day of the accident.

Dissimilar aircraft operations put aircraft with different operating characteristics like that of an F-16 and C-130 in the landing pattern of the runway at the same time.  This makes the air traffic control climate much more complex which increases risk.  Certain politicians seized on this issue as a way to impede a base closure.  The Armed Services Committees of both houses of Congress requested the investigating officer of the Pope accident appear to explain his report.

Like so often happened while serving on the air staff in the Pentagon, I was working at my desk one morning when out of the blue I was called to the head office (AF/XOO) to review the Pope accident report and then accompany the investigating officer to the Hill for committee hearings on the accident.  I had never seen the report before and only had one hour to review the one inch thick document.  I read the executive summary and conclusions and then closely read the attached control tower audio tape transcript.  I had insufficient time to review the full report.

I finished my review and learned I would be the only air traffic control expert on the briefing team.  The tape transcript did give me an overview of what had transpired in the control tower at the time of the accident.  There was no doubt in my mind that the Pope control tower had failed in its primary job of air safety by creating a confusing environment in the landing pattern.  I noted the report had also completely exonerated the F-16 pilot.

During good weather conditions, as was the case on the day of the accident at Pope, the control tower sets up the landing sequence of arriving aircraft (who’s first and who’s second etc..)  and advises pilots where other aircraft are in the pattern.  It’s the pilot’s responsibility to separate his or her aircraft from other aircraft in the pattern by visual means.  The F16 pilot had been adivsed by the tower of the C-130 in front of him on final approach and proceeded ahead until colliding with the C-130.  This fact stuck out in my mind.  But I hadn’t had time to adequately review the report to be sure there weren’t extenuating circumstances mitigating the pilot’s decision to proceed.

I met the investigation officer, Colonel Vincent J. Santillo. Jr., an F-16 pilot, as well as other members of the team.  We proceeded to Capitol Hill to brief the House and Senate Armed Services committees.  Colonel Santillo briefed the House first with the team sitting behind him.  During this first briefing, he made factual errors concerning internal control tower procedures.  As we walked to the Senate committee room for the next briefing, I advised him of the errors.  I found it strange that he did not have an understanding of basic control tower operational procedures when he had cited the tower operators as the sole cause of the accident in the report.

Colonel Santillo finished the second briefing to the Senate.  Based on the questions the committee members asked in both briefings, I realized they were not really interested the accident itself, but rather how it could be used to further political agendas.  Walking outside, I was approached by the 9th Air Force Commander who had observed the briefings.   The general asked me if I had any comments about the report and I replied that I hadn’t had enough time to review the report to be able to form any valid opinions.  At the time, I found his question strange since the report had been approved by him before its publication.  It was a little late to be asking a senior air traffic control officer his opinion about the report.  As I was to find out later, his apparent misgivings were well founded. (Green Ramp Disaster Original and Follow-up Accident Report)

But that was not to be the end of it.  The control tower watch supervisor on duty the day of the accident was forced to retrain and transferred to a menial job in base operations.  He felt he was treated unfairly and that the F-16 pilot shared the blame, yet was exonerated.  He filed a complaint with the Air Force Inspector General (IG) but the claim was dismissed.  Not satisfied, he filed the claim with the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG).  The DoD IG, being in a position to be more objective, saw merit in the claim.  He sent the accident report to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for an unbiased 3rd party assessment.  The FAA reviewed the report and concluded the pilot was partially culpable and recommended a further look.  Based on this, the DoD IG recommended a re-investigation to the Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Sheila Widnall.   She ordered the re-investigation.  After more than two years of bureaucratic grinding, the re-investigation was to take place.  (Associated Press article dated 18 January 1997)

By this time I had left the air staff and been reassigned to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada, as the Operations Officer of the 57th Operations Support Squadron.   I was at home one weekend in February, 1997 when I received a call from the Operations Group Commander, Colonel “Hime” Oram.  He told me that I had been tasked by the commander of Air Combat Command to join a team re-investigating the Pope accident.  I wondered who had recommended me for this accident board.  While on the air staff, I had met Dr. Widnall, the Secretary of the Air Force.  I had also worked with DoD IG on several occasions.  It also might have been someone from my old office.

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Hammon and Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Sheila Widnall in the Pentagon, December 1995.   Dr. Widnall was the first female service secretary in the nation’s history.  She was appointed by President Clinton in response to the Navy “tailhook” scandal.

At 10:00 Tuesday morning, 18 Feburary 1997, I left Las Vegas in my truck and headed for Davis Monthan AFB near Tucson, Arizona.  I checked into the Davis Monthan Inn that night.  The next morning the team assembled  in a conference room for introductions.  The team included an Air Force lawyer, a C-130 pilot, an F-16 pilot, a psychologist, and a human factors specialist from the Biomedical Service Corps.  We were all seated around the conference room table and the investigating officer, Colonel Michael S. Brake introduced himself.  And then something happened that I will never forget.  He looked at me and with a touch of anger in his voice let me know he was not happy that I was on the team.  I had never met him before so I was dumbfounded.  Everyone in the room had a “what just happened” look on their faces.

Throughout my time as an Air Force air traffic control officer, I had experienced this attitude in Air Force fighter pilots time and time again.  The FAA entrusts stewardship of parts of the national airspace system to the military.  In return, the military is required to follow the rules the FAA sets for all air traffic controllers.  These rules put air safety paramount over all other considerations.  The Air Force fighter pilot culture encouraged “pushing the envelope”.  This created a natural conflict between fighter pilot and controller.  To Colonel Brake, the re-investigation of the Pope accident was nothing more than an attempt to ruin the career of a good F-16 pilot.  I believe he projected his contempt with air traffic control on me.  Welcome to the team.

We spent a week in Tuscon going over the first accident report.  Having more time to review the report this time around, something else stuck out in my mind.  The investigating officer, Colonel Santillo, was the 6th Operations Group commander based at McDill AFB, Florida.  When appointed as the investigation officer, he had taken two of his own air traffic control non-commissioned officers (NCOs) with him as his air traffic control advisors.   Normally, accident investigation teams are made up of officers not NCOs.   He  must have known this accident investigation would put him in a position to judge controller and pilot actions.  These NCOs were not going to tell him something he didn’t want to hear since they worked for him.

During this week, I kept quiet and did not offer any opinions which would have probably evoked another confrontation with Colonel Brake.  Throughout my time in the Air Force, I had always enjoyed better interactions with airlift pilots. They seemed to better appreciate the job of air traffic controllers.   Major Mitch Gerber, the team’s C-130 pilot, was no exception and we hit it off immediately.  We spent time together and went on cross-country runs after work every day.  He was down-to-earth and I liked him.

On February 25th, we left for the Tucson airport on our way to Fayetteville and eventually Pope AFB.  We were able to keep our rooms back at Davis Montham while we simultaneously checked into billeting at Pope.  This is the only time in my Air Force career that I was able to “double billet”, one of the perks of being on an accident investigation team.  We checked into Pope billeting that night at 8:15.

At our first meeting at Pope the next day, Colonel Brake told me he had no interest in talking to the control tower watch supervisor who had caused this re-investigation and was still working at Pope in base operations.  Our purpose at Pope was to simply re-create the accident.  The flight recorder of the F-16 had been destroyed in the crash and the C-130 flight recorder had malfunctioned.  Colonel Brake would fly the same pattern the accident F-16 had flown with the same configuration and weather conditions.  At a different time, a local C-130 pilot would do the same.  We would take this newly captured data and re-create the accident in a computer simulation with the original control tower audio tape recordings providing the sound track.

On the day of the accident, the F-16 pilot was performing a maneuver called a simulated flameout (SFO) approach.  This emergency F-16 approach has the pilot throttle back the single engine and glide to a landing from a high position near the runway.  Since the approach was initiated outside the control tower airspace, Fayetteville Approach, an FAA radar facility, would have to give approval.  A minor error made by the FAA the day of accident was cited in the original investigation  report as a contributing factor.  I would have to coordinate Colonel Brake’s planned SFO maneuver with them since they had prohibited SFOs at Pope after the accident.

I contacted the local air traffic control officer and he made an appointment that day with the FAA facility chief at Fayetteville Approach Control.  We met with the facility chief and his assistant and I explained who I was and what we intended to do while at Pope.  When he realized we intended to fly an SFO approach, the chief emphatically denied authorization.  I was a little amused since he apparently did not realize the high level interest this accident re-investigation had.  I was on a “mission from God”.  I asked him if he was sure he wanted to deny the maneuver.  He wouldn’t budge.

We went back to the air traffic control office at Pope.  I still had contacts back in Washington DC from my time on the air staff.  I called the Air Force liaison office located in the FAA headquarters building in Washington.  I talked to a friend and explained the situation.  She said she would take care of it.  The next day, we got a call from the Fayetteville FAA facility chief who wanted to meet with us in his office.  We met with the the FAA chief and his assistant once again.  This time there was a huge change in attitude.  They were falling all over themselves to help us get the SFO procedure done.   We were able to complete both the C-130 and F-16 flights while we filmed them from the Pope control tower.

While we were at Pope, another deficiency from the original investigation became apparent.  When the accident occurred, there were other C-130s in the vicinity of the airport whose crew members were witnesses to the catastrophe.  The original investigator, Colonel Santillo, never interviewed these C-130 crew members.  By now one had left the Air Force and was flying for a commercial airline.  We were able to contact him between flights and interviewed him over the phone.  One other C-130 crew member in the same plane as well as a crew member whose aircraft was on a nearby taxiway were also telephonically interviewed.  But, none of these interviews added anything new to the investigation.

We successfully captured data from the flights of an F-16 and C-130.   We also located the original control tower audio recordings and made copies as well as a written transcript.  With data collection complete, our time at Pope ended.  On 3 March, after spending a week at Pope, we flew back to Tuscon.  We spent the night at Davis Montham and the next afternoon flew to Tinker AFB located in Oklahoma City.

For the next four days we used Tinker’s  Mishap Analysis Animation Facility (MAAF) to re-create the accident in a computer animation.  Combined with the control tower recordings, we were able to witness the whole accident in real time.  Hearing the original control tower tape recordings gave me a new perspective on the attitude and state-of-mind of the F-16 pilot.  He seemed to be overly relaxed in his communications with the tower almost to the point of being flippant.  Putting all the pieces together, I was convinced he was partially responsible for the accident.  The control tower had set the stage but had he acted in a careful manner, the accident might have been prevented.  We flew back to Tucson on March 8th and spent the next 6 days at Davis Montham finishing up the analysis of the accident.

On the final day at Davis Montham, Colonel Brake had the whole board vote on the F-16 pilot’s culpability in the accident.  The vote was unanimous in favor of  the culpability of the F-16 pilot.  I’m sure Colonel Brake wished otherwise, but the board consisted of pilots, controllers, and human factor specialists.  He had no choice but to concede.  Colonel Brake dismissed the board and proceeded to write the report alone.   I drove back home to Las Vegas on 14 March.

In June of that year, the final report was released.  (Associated Press Article in the Valdosta Daily Times (Georgia) dated 22 June 1997).  Originally, the controllers involved in the crash were fined, demoted, and relieved of duty.  And for all his trouble after the release of the second report, the watch supervisor who had made the DoD IG complaint was given an article 15 (non-judicial punishment).  Three months later, on September 3rd, the F-16 pilot, Captain Joseph R. Jacyno, was promoted to Major (Congressional Record) and continued on flying status.   As far as I know, no action was taken against Colonel Santillo, the original accident investigation officer, for his biased report.

The accident was a terrible event and like most accidents of this sort had multiple causes.  The initial accident investigation and its follow-up investigation reaffirmed to me how corrupt the culture of the Air Force had become by the 1990’s.  I have been retired now for over twenty years and this corruption was one of the many reasons I chose not to continue on in the Air Force at the 21 year point.  As a lieutenant colonel, I could have stayed for 28 years.  Some events which have taken place over the last twenty years have given me hope the culture has changed and the Air Force is a better functioning organization.  But in this case, the corrupt fighter pilot culture successfully protected its own.


The First Defense Ministerial of the Americas

In December 1994, President Clinton hosted 33  democratically elected leaders from the Western Hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas in Miami in order to affirm commitments to democracy and develop a new architecture for ongoing relationships.  In that spirit, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry followed up with a summit of defense representatives from all thirty-four democratically elected governments of our Hemisphere (Cuba excluded) in July 1995 (State Department Background on the First Defense Ministerial of the Americas).  I was lucky enough to attend this historic summit as the leader of a liaison team to the Trinidad and Tobago delegation.  The following is my recollection of that three day summit.

This is the logo developed for the first Defense Ministerial of the Americas. It shows the American continent superimposed over a drawing of the Governor’s Palace located in Colonial Williamsburg which was where this historic event took place.

Secretary Perry selected Air Force Colonel Raymond C. Gagnon, Jr. as the Director of the task force organizing the event.  It was planned for 3 days starting on July 24th, 1995.  Colonel Gagnon had an air weapons controller background and apparently had the trust of the secretary to put this very important event together.  Colonel Gagnon was given the Colonial Williamsburg location to stage the event.  This is a very popular tourist destination which was closed to the public for three days in order to ensure tight security for the attendees.

One of the many problems to be solved was the various languages the attendees spoke:  English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  A call went out for bilingual military officers to act as liaisons to the attendees.  My boss was bilingual in French and was picked for the Canadian delegation.  After becoming involved with the planning, he recommended me for the Trinidad and Tobago delegation.    Trinidad is an English speaking nation but a Spanish speaker was needed for possible interactions with the majority Spanish speaking delegates.  I had graduated from the Defense Language Institute seven month Castilian Spanish course and had lived and worked for three years in Zaragoza, Spain.  I had also spent time in Central America having been deployed to work military exercises several times.

I am pictured here sitting at my cubicle  in our secure office called a “vault” inside the Pentagon in 1995. Notice the window in the background. This was a luxury for the rank and file. In my previous office, there were no windows. There were times when I would go to work in the dark and return home in the dark never seeing the sunlight all day.

I was working in my office on Wednesday, July 19th when my boss called and told me to drive down to Williamsburg, Virginia that evening for in-processing and training the next day.   After a two and a half hour drive from my home in Fairfax Station, Virginia, I arrived at Williamsburg and checked into the Williamsburg Lodge at nine o’clock that night.  Since I was a team leader, I was given a private room.

The next day, I met my team which consisted of a marine major and an air force captain who were both bilingual in Spanish.  We spent  two days in-processing and receiving an overview of the summit.  We also received training in protocol as well as what our duties would be.  I learned my team would be assigned to the Trinidad and Tobago delegation which would consist of their foreign minister, an assistant, and a Trinidad army colonel.  The Trinidad Defense Minister was not able to attend so the Foreign Minister, Mr. Gordon Draper, would be sent in his place.  As part of the in-processing, we were issued special badges for the event.  Security of the attendees was of paramount importance.

This is the badge I was given for the summit. We were instructed not to wear our uniforms during the event which is why I am pictured here in civilian clothes. Also, notice the Trinidad and Tobago national flag was part of the badge. Each Trinidad delegate and my team members wore identical badges during our stay in Colonial Williamsburg.

On July 22nd at 8:30 am, all 34 liaison teams boarded government buses bound for Langley Air Force Base near Virginia Beach, Virginia where we boarded a military transport bound for Miami International Airport.  The arrival plan for all the delegates had them arrive in Miami and then be transported to Colonial Williamsburg as a group.  We arrived at Miami International Airport at 12:45 pm and then shortly after checked in at the Miami Hilton located near the airport.  The delegates would all arrive at different times the next day.

The next day, July 23rd, we were instructed that each team leader would travel to the airport in a limousine and personally meet our assigned delegation.  A special line through customs was set up to quickly usher our VIPs through the airport.  I met the limousine at the hotel and rode in the back to the airport by myself.  I must admit that I was somewhat apprehensive on the ride there and hoped I would not be the cause of an international incident if something should go wrong.

I arrived at the airport and proceeded to the arrival gate of my delegation.  These were the pre-911 days when you could still meet arriving parties at the gate.  I connected with my delegation as they entered the airport and ushered them through customs.  We picked up their baggage and proceeded to the limousine  which now had a police escort provided by the city of Miami.  We got in the limousine and were off immediately.  The two car police escort turned on their lights and sirens and we were whisked through the city to the hotel.  I found it to be quite an interesting experience.  During the ride, I gave the group a security briefing and gave each member of the delegation a badge to be worn while in Colonial Williamsburg.

Arriving at the hotel, my team met the limousine and were introduced to the individuals they had been assigned as liaisons.  The major would take care of the army colonel and the captain was matched with Mr. Draper’s assistant.  I accompanied Mr. Draper to his room and helped him with his baggage.  Once inside, we continued the conversation we had as we rode in the limousine and became acquainted with each other.  At the end of the conversation, he asked me to call him Gordon.  I explained I probably shouldn’t in public but I would be happy to in private.  I realized I was lucky to have been matched with an important but approachable man.  I liked him right away.

Mr. Gordon Draper, Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in 1995 is pictured here as he appeared in 2000.

We left the Miami Hilton at 10:00 am the next day on a government contracted bus and boarded an Air Force transport at the Miami airport for the flight back to Langley Air Force Base.  We arrived at 12:45 pm and spent a few hours at Langley and then proceeded to Colonial Williamsburg.  Along with the summit’s support staff, I checked in to the Williamsburg Lodge while the delegates stayed at the Willimasburg Inn.

My job was to accompany Gordon to most events during the next two days of the summit to help him with interactions with other delegates if needed.  I was issued a hand held radio which we called a “brick” in the military.  In 1995, cell phones were still essentially a novelty.  The brick would give me instant contact with the summit’s support headquarters should any problems arise.

At the end of the first day, a catered dinner in a large tent set up on the grounds of the Governor’s Palace was planned.  I met the Trinidad delegation there during a cocktail hour before the dinner.  The delegation chose to stay together in light conversation.  It was a pleasant summer evening and the mood was light.  After a while, the protocol people began to encourage the delegations to find their tables under the tent.  After a short while, most the people in attendance had found their seats, but my three delegates continued to remain outside engaged in light conversation.

The protocol people began to give me visual signals indicating my delegation needed to move to the tent.  I tried succinctly to get them to move.  Gordon apparently realized my discomfort and offered, “We are going to lime just a bit longer”  (In Trinidad, liming is a slang term meaning the art of doing nothing).  After seeing the quizzical look on my face, he offered an explanation, “a man in Trinidad was once sent by his wife to get a chicken for dinner.  He returned the next day slightly drunk and instead of giving his wife a chicken, he gave her a lime instead.”  Much to the relief of the protocol people, my delegation eventually took their seats under the tent and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner.

Delegates to the first Defense Ministerial of the Americas are pictured here in the Colonial Williamsburg conference center in July 1995.

During the summit, only two minor problems arose with the delegation.  The first concerned the Trinidad army colonel.  He did not agree with the arrangements the Trinidad government had made for the summit.  He felt that he, as the delegation’s military representative, should be its head.  He asked that I make a request to have him be recognized as the lead.  I passed his request to the protocol people and they contacted the Trinidad government.  Trinidad replied there would be no changes and I informed the colonel who accepted the answer.

The next problem concerned security.  I had told the members of the delegation that they had to wear their badges at all times while at the summit.  One afternoon, one of the Trinidad delegation members decided to take a walk around the grounds without his badge and was challenged by security.  They tried to reach me on my brick but I must have been out of range and never got the call.  In the end, security identified him and let him go on his way.

Highlights of the summit included speeches by Secretary of Defense Perry and Vice President Al Gore. Terry McAuliffe, now Governor of Virginia (2018) introduced the Vice President.  I was in attendance at all of these events.

I accompanied Gordon to most events during the summit.  On the second evening of the summit, we attended a cocktail party in the Governor’s Palace where Secretary Perry was in attendance.  Gordon indicated he wanted to meet the secretary so we walked over to him and I found myself introducing the Foreign Minister of Trinidad to the US Secretary of Defense.  As we approached the Secretary, I was reviewing proper protocol procedures in my mind.  I was nervous but I managed to get through the introductions without making a mistake.  This definitely was not my area of expertise.

On the last day of the summit, all the delegates were gathered to have a group photo taken in front of the Governor’s Palace. I was standing next to the photographer when this photo was taken.

The summit ended on July 26th and we left Colonial Williamsburg at 2:00 pm for the bus ride back to Langley.  Upon arriving at Langley, we immediately boarded an Air Force transport and flew back to Miami.  We checked back into the Miami Hilton at 5:30 pm that evening.  Later that evening, we socialized in a suite reserved for us on the top floor of the Hilton.  I spent a pleasant evening with the delegation in conversation and drinks.  Gordon was a pleasant and warm man and we enjoyed a pleasant evening together.

The next morning, July 27th, the delegation checked out of the Hilton and Gordon and I said goodbye.  He was going to spend a few days in Miami as a tourist.  I breathed a sigh of relief as this special assignment ended without any serious problems arising.

At 1:30 that afternoon, I flew back to Langley and was bused back to Colonial Williamsburg to reunite with my vehicle.  I arrived back home at Fairfax Station, Virginia at 8:00 pm and went back to work in the Pentagon the next day.  A few months later, my contribution to the summit was recognized by Colonel Gagnon.

This is a letter sent to the Air Force Director of Current Operations by Colonel Gagnon a few months after the summit was over. A very nice certificate signed by the Secretary of Defense, William Perry and a personal letter to me were attached. That certificate proudly hangs on my wall to this very day.  In addition, we were all given the “T-shirt”, in this case a polo shirt with the Ministerial Logo imprinted.

Final Thoughts:

Sadly, Gordon Draper died of an aneurysm (sudden bleeding in the layer between the skull and the brain) in St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England in August of 2004.  Friday 13th August edition of the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.

The Defense Ministerial became a biennial event.  The 2nd Ministerial was held two years later in Argentina.  Coincidentally, the 12th one was held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 2016.  The 13th is to be held in Mexico this year,  2018.

Russian Air Traffic Control Delegation Visit to New Jersey

On the 31st of August, 1993, I escorted a Russian Federation air traffic control delegation from the Pentagon to McGuire Air Force Base  located in Burlington County, New Jersey.  This was a follow up visit to one made by the Chief of Staff of the Russian Air Force which had ended prematurely in March of that same year when political conditions in the Russian Federation were reaching a crisis point  (see previous article).  Unlike that trip, this one was completed in its entirety.

The Russian delegation consisting of Mr. Victor B. Kurenkov (Director, Office of International Relations ROSAERONAVIGATSIA), General Boris I. Kushneruk (Chief ATC, Russian Federation Air Force), and General Yuri V. Zatolokin (Chief General Staff, Russian Federation Air Force) stayed at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington DC.  An enlisted Russian translator and I met them at the Pentagon helipad located on the west side of the complex.  From there we departed at about 9:15 am in a flight of two UH-1 helicopters designated “Mission 1” and operated by 1st Helicopter Squadron of the 89th Military Airlift Wing (the organization which operates the President’s aircraft, Air Force One) which at the time was located at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

I flew to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey accompanying the Russian air traffic control delegation on August 31st, 1993. We took off from the Pentagon Helipad on the west side of the building (marked with an “H”) in this drawing. Notice how the Pentagon is surrounded by freeways.

Taking off on a clear summer morning, lifting out of the busy rush hour traffic on a busy business day for Washington DC, was exciting to say the least.  I had never seen the Pentagon from this perspective before.  The 150 mile flight lasted a little over an hour traveling over Baltimore and the rural areas of Maryland and New Jersey.  We landed at McGuire at about 10:30 am and were greeted by the 438th Airlift Wing Commander, Brig Gen George Cray III.

First up for the delegation was a mission brief by the 438th Airlift Wing followed by a windshield tour of the base which included dormitories, the local aerial port squadron, airlift control squadron, and a static display of a C-141B.  After the tour we headed to the officers’ club for lunch.  After lunch, we headed to the local air traffic control facilities for a tour and briefings.

Final stop for the delegation was with the local press for interviews.  In attendance were the Asbury Park Press, the Star Ledger, Burlington County Times, Courier Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

At the press conference, General Kushneruk revealed some interesting difference in approaches to control tower operations.  From the September 1st, 1993 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Much of the airspace technology and philosophies used at McGuire is the same … with a few minor exceptions as those employed in Russia, General Boris I. Kushneruk to reporters after touring the air traffic control tower.

This is more of a confirmation of what we plan to do, added Kushneruk, speaking through an interpreter.  Everything we saw is something we have or are trying to get.

Kushneruk noted one philosophical difference:  The pilot of an American military aircraft is most responsible for its speed, direction, and safety.  In Russia, he said, officials in the control tower pretty much tell pilots how fast and hight to fly, when to turn and when to attack.”

After the press conference, we headed back to the flight line to board our helicopters and return to the Pentagon.  We returned to the helipad at the Pentagon late in the afternoon and I was able to join my carpool mates for the ride home to Fairfax Station, Virginia, where my family and I lived.  A few weeks later I was recognized by the Director of Operations for the Air Force, Major General Edwin Tenoso.

In the military, we are not rewarded for work on successful special projects monetarily. Notes like this suffice for deserved recognition. This general was one of my favorites during my four years in the Pentagon. He was a thoughtful and even tempered commander.


Russian Air Force Chief of Staff Visits Cheyenne Mountain

I found myself on March 24th, 1993, inside the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) operations center located inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado, watching a briefing being given to Russian military dignitaries. I realized I was watching something historic unfold before my eyes.  The Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had collapsed.  I was acting as a supporting officer for a visit to the US by the Russian Federation Air Force Chief of Staff, General-Colonel of Aviation Anatoliy Ivanovich Malyukov and other Russian generals who were receiving a presentation by the Deputy Commander of NORAD, Canadian Lieutenant-General Brian L. Smith.  This event seems especially ironic now, given the current (2018) international climate and our deteriorating relationship with Russia.

How we came to give the head of the Russian Air Force a tour inside Cheyenne Mountain to include briefings on how we execute air defense in North America is an interesting story.  It involves the advance of US commercial interests and efforts by the Clinton administration to help Russia develop its fledgling democracy.

Entrance Pose
March 24th 1993 Cheyenne Mountain tour for Chief of the Main Staff, Air Forces of the Russian Federation, General-Colonel of Aviation Anatoliy Ivanovich Malyukov. The General is standing in civilian clothes next to the blue shield. Standing to his left in uniform is NORAD Deputy Commander, Canadian Lieutenant-General Brian L. Smith.  Mr. Frank Colson is standing 4th from the right and your author, Major Tim Hammon, on the far right.

In October of 1992, Mr. Frank Colson who was the Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Transportation and Federal Aviation as well as  the Executive Director of the Department of Defense Policy Board on Federal Aviation (I assisted my boss who was a member of this board) met with two Russian Generals in Detroit, Michigan.  The generals were there to witness the first civilian over-flight of the Russian Far East by Northwest Air Lines on a new route from Detroit to Japan.  US airlines were very interested in this polar route because of the cost and time savings.  During this meeting, many questions came up concerning the integration of civilian and military flight operations within US airspace.  There was not enough time to go into much detail, so an invitation was extended to representatives of the Russian Air Force to visit the US and continue discussions.

In February, 1993, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a request to the US embassy in Moscow to invite a delegation of Russian military officers to visit the US for familiarization tours of US airspace management.  Specifically, the US wanted to show the Russians, who were becoming more democratic, how our Air Force was able to operate in an airspace under the control of a civilian agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  The invitation was accepted.

The State Department arranged support from two US air carriers, Northwest and Delta Airlines, to provide transportation support for the Russians and from the Radio Technical Commission for Avionics (RTCA), a non-profit standards setting organization, for meal and lodging support.  The visit was planned to last eight days with visits to Washington DC, Colorado Springs CO, Jacksonville FL, Panama City FL, Biloxi MS, and other locations.  The purpose of the visit was to encourage the Russians to open their airspace to civilian over-flight and to buy air traffic control systems from US companies.  The Department of Defense was interested in assisting this effort to help encourage the Russians to transfer control of their national airspace from the military to civilian.

Early in the morning on Wednesday, 24 March 1993, another major from my office and I met the Russian military delegation at the Double Tree Hotel in Washington DC.  We rode with them in a step van to Andrews AFB, MD.  Apparently, they had an entertaining night as I observed the hotel staff remove a large cardboard box filled with empty liquor bottles from their rooms.  After arriving at Andrews, we boarded an Air Force C-135, which was used by Vice President Al Gore for official travel.

Canadian Lieutenant-General Brian L. Smith, General-Colonel of Aviation Anatoliy Ivanovich Malyukov, Mr. Frank Colson, and a US Russian translator waiting to board “Air Force Two” on the ramp at Colorado Springs.

After an uneventful two hour flight, we landed at the airport in Colorado Springs, Co. We were met there by a flight of US Army Black Hawk helicopters which transported us to Cheyenne Mountain.  This was the first and only time I had flown in a Blackhawk.  It was a clear spring day in Colorado and as we neared Cheyenne Mountain, I looked down and saw that all the roads in the area had been blocked by police.  We were met by the NORAD deputy commander, General Smith.

On the ramp in Colorado Springs in front of a Black Hawk helicopter is part of the group to tour Cheyenne Mountain. Far left is Colonel Gary M. Rubus, air attach to the Russian Federation. 3rd from left is Canadian Lieutenant-General Brian L. Smith standing next to General-Colonel of Aviation Anatoliy Ivanovich Malyukov who is in civilian clothes. 2nd from right is Mr. Franks Colson, SAF/AQKT. Far right is Senior Lieutenant Oleg Vasiliyevich Sharipov who served as the Russian delegation’s translator.

We passed through the heavily fortified blast doors of Cheyenne Mountain and entered the highly secure NORAD.  Once inside, we began a tour of the facilities.

Inside Cheyenne Mountain on 24 March, 1993. On the far left is Senior Lieutenant Sharipov, Mr. Frank Colson, and Col. Rubus. General-Colonel Malyukov in civilian clothes in the center standing next to Lt General Smith. On the far right is Maj. Tim Hammon standing next to Lt. Uplinger, an AF Russian language specialist.

At the end of the tour, we entered a conference room connected to the operations center.  Lt General Smith gave an unclassified briefing while we looked out onto the highly sanitized operations floor.  I remember thinking to myself, the cold war was certainly over!  After the tour, we flew back to the Colorado Springs airport aboard the Black Hawks that had brought us there.  We boarded the C-135 to fly to the next stop of the day, Eglin AFB in the panhandle of Florida.  However, we never made it there.

Not long after takeoff, the Russian delegation received word that the political climate back home was deteriorating quickly.  The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was in a power struggle with the Russian parliament resulting in a constitutional crisis which was eventually resolved with military force,  1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis .    The Russian delegation decided they needed to return home immediately.

The decision was made to re-route the flight to JFK airport in New York City immediately.  A minor problem was securing an arrival slot into this busy airport.  I had been given a cell phone for the trip (new technology at the time).  I called back to the Pentagon and asked Mr. Colson’s military aide to contact the FAA for the request.  The FAA responded quickly and we headed to the East Coast.

En-route to JFK, General Malyukov presented me and others with Russian Air Force pilot wings in appreciation of our contributions to their visit to the US.  I have kept those wings as a cherished memento representing one of the most interesting days of my life.  We landed at JFK uneventfully and said goodbye to our visiting dignitaries.  We flew back to Andrews and I slept in my own bed that night.






My Story

I’m a man in his early sixties leading a quiet retired life in Folsom, California.  I spent the first 43 years of my life in the United States Air Force as both the dependent of an Air Force non-commissioned officer and then as an officer.  I moved constantly during this time living overseas and practically in all four corners of the US.  I attended Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) on a four year ROTC scholarship graduating in 1977 with a BS in Physics.  While in the Air Force, I received an MA in Business Management in 1986 from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri.  I also graduated from Squadron Officers School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College as well as numerous other specialty programs.

Upon graduation from SIUE, the Air Force placed me in air traffic control as an air traffic control officer.  After initial training, I attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, completing a seven month course in Castilian Spanish in preparation for an assignment to Zaragoza, Spain.  Spanish language proficiency was a requirement to work in the international control tower in Zaragoza where I was certified as part of my duties.  While there, my two daughters, Aubrey and Jessica, were born.  From there I moved to Sacramento, California and assumed the position as Chief of Air Traffic Control at McClellan Air Force Base.  It was there my son, Daniel, was born.

After that, I worked on the staff of the Air Force Communications Command, at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois as the Chief of Air Force Air Traffic Control Training  Branch.  Next, I was assigned as the Airfield Operations Flight Commander at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Florida.  My last two assignments in the Air Force were in the Pentagon as an action officer and program element monitor and finally the XO of the 57th OSS at Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, Nevada.  I retired from the Air Force in 1998 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

After the Air Force, I became part owner and CEO of a dial-up internet service provider in El Dorado County, California called Direct Connect.  This was an opportune time in a fast growing sector of the economy.  Eventually, the telephone and cable companies squeezed most all the smaller operators out of business (AT&T and Comcast in my case).

After seven years running Direct Connect I sold the business.  Next, I tried my hand at teaching middle school as a substitute teacher where my wife, Celeste, taught.  After two years, I came to the realization I did not have the temperament to continue teaching in the California School system which in my opinion gives troubled kids too much leeway to the detriment of the majority of good kids who want to learn.  Perhaps my military background influenced me in this regard.

My wife and I are now both fully retired (1998) and are enjoying time spent with our three grown children, Aubrey, Jessica, and Daniel as well as our grand kids.

As I have related stories to my family about my time in the Air Force and in business, some have recommended that I capture these experiences in written form so that they can know what I have accomplished in my life.  That was the genesis of this blog.

Tim Hammon in 2013 on a 6 day hike along the Tahoe Rim trail in the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe, California.