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Florida military installations dealt with tragedies and mishaps in 2020

Eglin Air Force Base (Eglin Air Force Base/Facebook)

For military installations in Northwest Florida, 2020 was a year of dealing with combat deaths, fatal training accidents and aircraft crashes that began even before the year recorded its first day.

And as this year draws to a close, questions regarding at least a couple of those incidents remain unanswered, at least publicly.

Personnel at Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, began 2020 still grieving the deaths of 33-year-old Tech. Sgt. Peter Kraines and 29-year-old Staff Sgt. Cole Condiff. Kraines died in October 2019 during mountain rescue training in Idaho, and Condiff died in a parachute accident over the Gulf of Mexico in November 2019.

And in March of this year, Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker, 24, died during combat dive training in Panama City.

All three were members of AFSOC’s 24th Special Operations Wing, the Air Force’s only Special Tactics wing.

The parachuting and mountaineering incidents prompted Air Force Special Operations Command to halt those two training operations, along with its diving training, before reinstating the training in the spring of 2020.

An Air Force investigation into the parachuting incident found that Condiff’s parachute deployed inside the aircraft because it was improperly configured due to insufficient procedural knowledge on the part of the participating jumpmasters. The investigation also found misunderstanding of requirements for safe static-line parachute operations, attributed to a training deficiency within the 24th SOW.

An investigation into the mountaineering incident found that an anchoring system failed while another participant was rappelling, pulling Kraines off the top of a cliff.

The Air Force probe of the diving training accident found that Baker died of accidental drowning during a 2,000-yard swim, but also noted that the Air Force Combat Dive Center “deviated from written policy when they did not implement the use of buddy pairs during the 2,000-yard surface swim training event,” so that Baker was swimming alone at the time of the incident.

Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC’s commander, addressed the deaths in a recent interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan national security think tank. In those comments, Slife referenced a U.S. Special Operations Command review of special operations personnel in all of the nation’s military services.

The SOCOM review found that the pace of operational activity across the U.S. military’s special operations forces had resulted in a lack of attention to training and its associated rigors.

“The central finding of the SOCOM comprehensive review was that we have systematically overvalued operational activity at the detriment of deliberate leader development and force-generation-type activity,” Slife told Seth Jones, director of the CSIS Transnational Threats Program, in the Nov. 23 interview.

“When we looked across our own formation in the aftermath of a couple of fatal training mishaps earlier this year and late last year, that’s exactly what we found,” Slife said. “… (W)e had created an environment where our units were so busy getting ready for the next thing that they weren’t paying attention to basic blocking and tackling.”

Even as AFSOC was grappling this year with a need for a renewed focus on training rigor and safety, Eglin Air Force Base was rocked in May by two aircraft crashes within a matter of days. Luckily, the pilots were able to eject safely from the aircraft, and there were no injuries on the ground in either incident.

On May 15, an F-22 Raptor fighter jet with the 325th Fighter Wing went down about 9:15 a.m. about 12 miles northeast of the main section of Eglin during a routine training mission. The pilot safely ejected from the aircraft.

On May 19, an F-35 Lightning II crashed at 9:30 p.m. while landing at Eglin at the end of an air combat training mission. The mission involved two F-35s flying against two aggressor aircraft. The pilot of the crashed aircraft, who ejected safely from his F-35, was serving as an instructor for the pilot in the other F-35.

More recently, U.S. Navy Lt. Rhiannon Ross, a 30-year-old instructor pilot, and U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Morgan Garrett, a 24-year-old student pilot, both stationed at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, died in an Oct. 23 crash of their T-6B Texan II turboprop aircraft in Alabama.

According to a recently released report from an Air Force Accident Investigation Board appointed to investigate the F-35 crash, a number of factors contributed to the incident. The report notes that the pilot tried to land the stealth fighter jet too fast at too shallow an angle, and was not able to get the aircraft off the runway to attempt another landing.

Also contributing to the crash, according to the report, was that the aircraft’s tail reacted contrarily to the pilot’s commands. Another factor in the crash was a misalignment of a flight data display on the pilot’s helmet visor, according to the investigative board.

The report also indicated that the pilot’s performance might have been affected by the F-35 simulator, in which it is possible to recover from a landing like he was attempting to make on the night of the incident.

The Air Force also appointed an Accident Investigation Board to look into the F-22 crash at Eglin, but as of a few days ago, no report had been released.

Similarly, no report on the Navy investigation into the T-6B Texan II crash had been released as the year drew to a close.

While training incidents and their fallout vexed local military installations through 2020, they also were not spared the anguish of losing personnel in combat.

On Feb. 8, two soldiers with the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) headquartered at Eglin died in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. The two soldiers, who were part of a joint U.S.-Afghan operation, died in what has been described as an insider attack because someone in an Afghan uniform opened fire.

Sgt. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez, a Green Beret, and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rodriguez, an Army Ranger, both were 28 years old.

Their remains were met by President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, among others, including family members, when they arrived at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base.

“Watching our best, most patriotic neighbors loaded out of that aircraft in flag-draped caskets was my most painful experience in 10 years in public life,” Gaetz said.

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(c) 2020 the Northwest Florida Daily News

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