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US Mission In Colombia In Deep Jeopardy

Two Crashes, Five Deaths, Three Hostages

America's effort to interdict drug trafficking and oh-by-the-way help Colombia fight its long-lived rebel insurgency has run into major problems. Two airplane crashes, five deaths and three hostages later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports the surveillance program is all but dead in the water.

It started on February 13th. Four American civilians, contractors for the military, along with a Colombian intelligence officer, were flying a Cessna Caravan 208B reconnaissance aircraft at about 5,000. They were using their belly-slung surveillance pod to monitor activity in the jungle below when it suddenly got awfully quiet.

Colombian Sgt. Alcides Cruz leaned forward and asked what was going on. "Sir, that's an engine failure," pilot Tom Janis said. They dove for a meadow and, miraculously, all five survived the resulting ground impact.

But they were surrounded by Colombian insurgents, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC. Janis and Cruz were executed on the spot. Marc Gonsalves, co-pilot Thomas Howes and crew member Keith Stansill were taken hostage. They're now bargaining chips in the decades-long war between Colombia and the FARC.

That left one other aircraft available to employees of California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, which contracts the missions from the US military. On March 25th, Ralph Ponticelli, James "Butch" Oliver and Thomas Schmidt took off to find their missing comrades. They were flying low over the jungle canopy when their wing apparently clipped a treetop. All three were killed in the resulting crash.

In fact, there have been eight American aircraft down in Colombia so far this year. Aside from the two surveillance crashes. The State Department says four of those aircraft were shot down while spraying herbicide on coca plants.

Pilots in the reconnaissance program wrote letter prior to Janis's crash, voicing their grave concerns about flying a single-engine aircraft on such long-range recon missions. They noted there had already been one engine failure and they felt the missions were becoming more and more risk-filled. One letter written a year ago was apparently never addressed.

"The way the administration has managed civilian contractors in Colombia is reminiscent of the space shuttle program," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. That group holds the checkbook for US foreign assistance programs. Aid to Colombia is one of them. "It was a great program until the shuttle exploded; then it turned out that NASA's managers were not aware of, or had disregarded, the warnings of their own engineers. In Colombia, the pilots' concerns were ignored and the families of those who died are still in the dark about what happened. There has been lax oversight and corners cut to stretch every dollar, and we have seen the tragic consequences. Despite the problems, we have yet to hear of any meaningful review of the program."

But the military, which runs the contractor program, wanted it to be "cost-effective" and low-profile. Single-engine aircraft can get in an out of more small, unimproved strips. They're cheaper to operate. And the single-engine Caravan has an excellent safety record.

"We put a lot of faith in that motor. It failed," said pilot Thomas Howes, now a hostage. He was videotaped by a Colombian reporter at a FARC camp in July. "Would we do it again? I don't think any one of the three of us would put our faith in one motor over the mountains of Colombia."

Stephen Lucas, who speaks for Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which coordinates the missions, writes, "As any aviator will tell you, aviation is an inherently risky business, and an engine failure in a single-engine aircraft is obviously potentially more catastrophic than an engine failure on a dual- or multi-engine aircraft. To professionals, this means greater emphasis on diligent execution of appropriate maintenance, planning, and flight procedures and operations, not the elimination of the aircraft from consideration for a mission."

The missions have become more dangerous, ever since the American government loosened restrictions on US efforts in Colombia. Until September 11th, 2001, the missions could be nothing other than drug surveillance and interdiction. Since the terror attacks, that restriction has been relaxed. There are more night missions now.

"The safety cushion is greatly decreased under those conditions," said one pilot in the program. "In bad weather, 300 miles away from search and rescue, in country controlled by guerrillas, you are flying at night, in storms. You are cutting any sort of safety redundancy out from under yourself.... The problem was, we were making this look easy. We never had a problem, we made it back and we made it look easy. It was mission creep. So it became the norm to go out at night, in storms, with no support."

But the pilots continued to fly. After all, they were civilians making $150,000 or more a year. Apparently, not one of them ever refused. So, to one pilot in the SOUTHCOM program, all the beefing just doesn't make sense. "If the management gives me an airplane I think is unsafe, I am not going to write a letter -- I am not going to fly that airplane," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to me at all."

FMI: www.southcom.mil

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