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Deadly Plane Crash Leaves Hard Feelings, Questions Print
By TED ROELOFS - c.2007 Newhouse News Service

WEST POINT, N.Y. — She comes here often, to a bluff above the Hudson River where George Armstrong Custer and Gen. William Westmoreland are buried.

Standing on a gray afternoon in West Point Cemetery at the grave of her late husband, Col. Jeanette McMahon is still seeking answers about his death.
"It was just so unnecessary. This didn't have to happen,'' she said.

Lt. Col. Michael McMahon and two other soldiers died in November 2004, when a Blackwater USA plane slammed into an Afghan mountain at 14,650 feet in virtually perfect flying conditions.

A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board cited Presidential Airways, a subsidiary of Blackwater, and its pilots for a series of mistakes and management oversights.

It is more personal for McMahon.

Each time she reads a transcript of the cockpit tape, McMahon, 45, comes to the same chilling conclusion.

"They were on a joy ride,'' she said of the pilots. "They were cowboying.''

McMahon is still angered by what the transcript says to her about the pilots. But she fixes equal blame on the company for the Nov. 27, 2004, fatal flight of Blackwater 61.

"I clearly don't want this happening to somebody else,'' McMahon said. She has joined a lawsuit against Blackwater with family members of the other two soldiers who died in the crash.

Blackwater contends it is immune from liability because it is effectively a part of the military.

* * *

The routine flight was to take the soldiers, the two pilots, a flight engineer and 400 pounds of ammunition about 450 miles from Bagram to the southwest. McMahon, 41, was a last-minute addition when he joined two others from his unit based near the border with Iran.

The expected route would have taken the plane to the southwest and then west. The pilots instead headed northwest at takeoff on what sounds like a sightseeing tour.

About 15 minutes after takeoff in their twin-engine turboprop plane, the captain, Noel English, said as they headed up a valley ringed by mountains: "We'll just see where this leads.''

They were on an unfamiliar route, which led into a box canyon, where they found themselves hemmed in by mountains 15,000 feet or higher.

As they neared the end of the canyon, they decided to turn around.

About 40 minutes into the flight, as they started their turn, a stall warning sounded on the flight recorder. A few seconds later, the recording ended.

* * *

In November 2006, the NTSB issued a report on the crash, faulting the pilots and Presidential Airways. Among the findings:

— The flight crew flew a nonstandard route into a box canyon and "did not take remedial action in a timely manner.''

— The crew did not use supplemental oxygen as required above 10,000 feet. The report noted pilot reaction time and judgment can be markedly impaired at altitudes above 12,000 feet.

— Blackwater did not provide sufficient oversight of its flight crews.

— Blackwater had faulty tracking and flight-plan procedures that effectively delayed the search for the missing plane by several hours.

An investigation by the Army released in 2005 faulted the pilots for mistakes in navigation and judgment and the contractor for failing to provide proper in-country training for the crew.

* * *

The flight was not reported missing until six hours after the crash. Searchers initially looked along the normal route and did not locate the wreckage until 24 hours after the crash.

Bad weather delayed the arrival of rescuers until two days later. They found the wreckage 25 miles north of the expected route, far too late to save anyone.

Five of the six perished in the crash. But an autopsy found the sixth, Army Spc. Harley Miller, 21, likely survived at least 10 hours after the crash.

Rescuers found two frozen urine stains in the snow and a metal ladder propped up against the fuselage. Miller's body was found inside the rear cargo area, near an unrolled sleeping bag and cigarette butt.

Miller "most likely would have survived'' had he been found within eight hours and had surgery, the NTSB investigation found. He died of a combination of blunt-force trauma, hypothermia and lack of oxygen.

His mother, Washington state resident Chris Miller, 48, is haunted to this day by knowledge of how her son perished.

"To know, as a mother, he sat out and froze to death bleeding internally is the most horrible feeling as mother,'' she said. "You have nightmares of your child calling to you, and you not being able to save him.''

Miller, too, wants Blackwater held accountable.

"He could have survived, had they been where they were supposed to be,'' she said.

Joseph Schmitz, chief operating officer and general counsel for Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater and Presidential, told The News & Observer in Raleigh that the NTSB report was erroneous and politically motivated.

Erik Prince did not comment.

Blackwater has responded to the lawsuit by asserting it is part of the Defense Department's "warfighting capability'' and thus immune from lawsuits.

* * *

The flight was part of a $35 million Air Force contract with Blackwater subsidiary Presidential Airways Inc. to transport personnel, supplies, spare parts and mail in the Afghanistan combat zone.

Since the crash, McMahon has moved from their former duty station in Hawaii to West Point for a job as special assistant to the superintendent of human relations. She is glad for the relative permanence of that assignment, given the effects of the past two years on their children, Michael, 16, Thomas, 13, and Ricky, 7.

McMahon remarried in September, but she keeps the memory of her husband of 17 years very much alive.

In a front room of her two-story brick house at West Point, McMahon has filled a glass cabinet with mementos of her former husband. They include the prized black Stetson he wore as a member of the 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, his military awards and the American flag she accepted at his funeral.

She placed a Hawaiian lei on his gravestone, a link to their time in that state. As she walked away from his grave, McMahon said she takes comfort in her belief Michael was prepared to die for his country.

But not this way.

And she thinks Michael would be "appalled'' by both the conduct of the pilots and Blackwater's argument they ought to be treated as part of the military, calling it "hogwash.''

"They are not wearing the uniform,'' she said. "I am wearing the uniform. Mike was wearing the uniform.

"If I could get Erik Prince's attention publicly, I would say: 'You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, Did your company do the right thing?' ''

(Ted Roelofs is a staff writer for The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press. He can be contacted at troelofs(at)grpress.com)
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