By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
War is the hot industry.
Recently, New Timesdescribed how Pompano Beach's Point Blank Body Armor has raked in millions since 9/11, despite repeated allegations that the company produces unsafe body armor (see "Vested Interests," September 29). Although military officials, police departments, and even company employees have raised questions about Point Blank's quality control, its chief executive, David H. Brooks, has enjoyed a roughly 3,000 percent raise, from $525,000 in 1999 to $70 million last year.
Point Blank's war profiteering isn't an anomaly: The Brookings Institute has described the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as the most privatized wars in history. Now, following a plane crash in which six Americans were killed, another Florida company's lucrative involvement in foreign wars has forced it into a theater nearly as hostile as the one in the Middle East: U.S. District Court.
How Melbourne, Florida-based Presidential Airways found itself the target of a remarkable lawsuit began on the morning of November 27, 2004, when three men gathered around a breakfast table to begin another $650 day.
It was a nice morning, cool and partially cloudy with clear visibility, as pilots Noel English and Loren Hammer and onboard mechanic Melvin Rowe walked to the CASA 212 airplane they would be flying. English and Hammer had arrived in Afghanistan only ten days earlier as civilians under contract to work for the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command. They were there to provide air transport service for troops and ammunition to and from Afghani airfields.
On this particular day, military officials told English and Hammer that they would be transporting ammunition and two uniformed Army officers Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan and Specialist Harley Miller from Bagram to Farrah. Their plane, a pudgy fuselage with twin propeller engines on its wings and the capability to take off and land on short runways, bore the tail number N960BW. But military officials had a different name for the airplane: Blackwater 63.
As the airplane taxied toward the runway at Bagram Airfield about 7 a.m., another uniformed officer, Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, ran toward Blackwater 63. The plane stopped. McMahon boarded the aircraft and handed an updated manifest to the pilots. There were now six people aboard the CASA 212.
From the beginning, the flight was plagued with problems. Officials at Bagram Airfield had instructed English and Hammer to fly south along an area known as the Bamian Valley on a route to Farrah. For some reason, they veered off course.
As the plane was about nine and a half miles from Bagram, it flew out of the airfield's radar range. Most of Afghanistan is uncontrolled, unmonitored airspace, meaning that pilots fly virtually blind once they leave the skies surrounding an airfield.
But just before Blackwater 63 flew out of radar range, military officials noticed something curious: The plane steered away from the Bamian Valley in an attempt to cross over a mountainous area on a route that would provide a more direct approach to Farrah. English and Hammer, who had only a combined 30 hours of flight time in Afghanistan, had made the same pass once before in the opposite direction.
This time was different. Blackwater 63 skirted cliff sides as it passed through the Hindu Kush Mountains. The terrain began to rise rapidly. Suddenly, English and Hammer were cut off, unable to fly Blackwater 63 above the mountains in front of them.
They initiated an emergency 180-degree turn. The engines stalled. Blackwater 63, flying at approximately 14,650 feet, slammed into the side of a 16,580-foot mountain. The plane skidded about 500 feet in the snowy terrain, its right wing and engine separating from the fuselage and scattering debris across the mountain.
If the pilots sent out distress signals while they went down, no one heard them. U.S. airbases in the country use satellite phones to communicate with pilots, according to a military report. Blackwater 63 was equipped only with a high-frequency radio, adequate for flying in North America but useless in Afghanistan. What's more, Blackwater 63 did not have a homing beacon.
It was only about two hours after takeoff that officials at Bagram Airfield realized there was problem. They received a call from Farrah: Blackwater 63 had not arrived. A search of the region took two days to locate the wreckage of the aircraft. On the third day, November 30, 2004, the military sent in a rescue team.
The two dead pilots had been thrown from the plane and were partially buried in the snow. Mechanic Rowe and uniformed soldiers Grogan and McMahon were killed immediately inside the aircraft.
Only Specialist Harley Miller, a 21-year-old from Spokane, Washington, with a wife and baby back home, appeared to have survived the crash. By the time rescuers arrived at the site, they found some cigarette butts and two urine stains in the snow. Miller had wrapped himself inside a sleeping bag in the plane, a half-full Camelback water bladder next to him, but he eventually died from internal bleeding.
What made this crash different from other war tragedies was its involvement of private enterprise. The plane known as Blackwater 63 was owned by Aviation Worldwide Services (AWS) and was operated by Presidential Airways, sister companies sharing a large hangar and complex in Melbourne, roughly 150 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. Presidential had contracted English, Hammer, and Rowe to man the aircraft as part of a $34 million, no-bid contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide air transport services throughout Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.