Err America

A plane crash in Afghanistan has a Florida company defending its mercenary profits in court

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.

Posing here with their families, Lt. Col. Michael McMahon and Specialist Harley Miller (below) were killed while aboard a private contractor's airplane in Afghanistan.
Posing here with their families, Lt. Col. Michael McMahon and Specialist Harley Miller (below) were killed while aboard a private contractor's airplane in Afghanistan.

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.

It isn't unusual that a small company in Melbourne received such a large military contract. AWS and Presidential are owned by the same parent company as Blackwater USA, a private security firm that has won contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blackwater's CEO and co-founder is Erik Prince, a politically connected Michigan businessman who has donated substantially to Republican causes since 2000.

Blackwater and a handful of other companies have made millions as private contractors fighting the nation's wars. Last year, Blackwater's pivotal role in the war came to the fore when newspapers printed a photograph of the charred remains of four Americans, all Blackwater contractors, hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq.

In June, the families of the Blackwater 63 crash filed a negligence lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Orlando against AWS, Presidential, and Blackwater. A recent military report of the plane crash seems to support the families' claim. It found that Presidential violated its contract by, among other things, not providing adequate equipment or sufficiently training pilots.

The case is significant because a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision bars soldiers from filing such negligence claims against the government. The decision eventually became known as the Feres Doctrine, providing nearly full immunity to the military no matter how egregious its negligence.

But in the Presidential Airways crash, because the military privatized the operation, the government isn't the one at fault. Private companies are.

"Because the Pentagon elected to contract out these services to a civilian corporation on a no-bid, $34 million contract, the families have the same remedies in the law as they would have against any other private company," says Bob Spohrer, an aviation attorney in Jacksonville who represents the families of the soldiers killed on Blackwater 63.

"Presidential and Blackwater will argue that the Feres Doctrine applies to them as well," Spohrer continues. "But they have a weak case, because they clearly violated the terms of their contract with the government. The investigation found that they did not have the necessary equipment and were using poorly trained pilots."

So far, Timothy L. Childrey, a former Army helicopter pilot who is now vice president of Presidential Airways, has been tightlipped with the families of both the fallen soldiers and the dead contractors. Childrey, who declined to comment for this article, paid English, Hammer, and Rowe $400 to $650 per day, depending on the assignment, while they were in Afghanistan. And although the plane crashed nearly a year ago, he has yet to explain to the families what happened, says Kim Rowe, wife of Blackwater 63's onboard mechanic.

"The war is about one thing for them — money," says Rowe, of Weston, Ohio, near Toledo. "We've been left in the dark. Presidential won't tell us anything. Blackwater won't tell us anything."

For his part, Childrey hasn't even read the government's crash report. Asked during a deposition to explain why he had not done so, Childrey responded callously: "It has not been provided to us."

"My husband had four kids," Rowe says. "They deserve to know what happened."

Today, Blackwater's soldiers-for-hire aren't only in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're also patrolling the streets of New Orleans, rifles in hand.

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