States

The Armed Rebellion on a Nevada Cattle Ranch Could Be Just the Start

Protesters gathered at the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy was being held, near Bunkerville, Nevada, April 12, 2014.
Protesters gathered at the Bureau of Land Management's base camp, where cattle seized from rancher Cliven Bundy was being held, near Bunkerville, Nevada, April 12, 2014. Jim Urquhart—Reuters

How Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy won a standoff against the government—and what the feds lost when they blinked.

It could have been a catastrophe. For several days last week, hundreds of angry protesters faced off with federal workers on an arid ranch near Bunkerville, Nev. Militiamen squatted among the sagebrush and crouched on a highway overpass, cradling guns and issuing barely veiled threats at the government officials massed behind makeshift barricades. The specter of a violent standoff hung over the high desert.

The hair-trigger tension seemed at odds with the arcane origins of the dispute. Twenty years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to clear privately owned cattle off this patch of public land to protect the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise. Dozens of ranchers left. Cliven Bundy stayed.

Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014.
Rancher Cliven Bundy poses at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014. Jim Urquhart—Reuters

Bundy, 68, has refused to recognize federal authority over the land, or to pay the feds for allowing his cattle to graze there. Those accumulated fees and fines now total more than $1 million, according to the government. Armed with fresh court orders, the government moved last week to impound a few hundred of the rancher’s cows.

Bundy balked, and the far right-wing media sounded a clarion call for his cause, casting the standoff as a flashpoint in a broader struggle against federal oppression. A cavalry of patriots arrived, bearing weapons and a seemingly bottomless grudge against the government.

On April 12, BLM retreated, abandoning the round-up amid “serious concerns” over the safety of federal employees. The cattle “gather is over,” BLM spokesman Craig Leff says. No shots were fired; no blood was spilled. Bundy declared victory in the Battle of Bunkerville. His supporters festooned a nearby bridge with a hand-lettered sign reading: “The West Has Now Been Won!”

For the government, it is not yet clear what was lost. The decision to de-escalate the situation was a wise one, according to officials familiar with the perils posed by such confrontation. “There was no need to have a Ruby Ridge,” says Patrick Shea, a Utah lawyer and former national director of BLM, invoking the bloody 1992 siege at a remote Idaho cabin, which became a rallying cry for the far right. Shea praises BLM’s new director, Neil Kornze, for defusing the conflict and skirting the specter of violence. There are plenty of ways for the government to recoup the money Bundy owes, Shea says, from placing liens on his property to collecting proceeds when the cattle go to slaughter. When you have been waiting a generation to resolve a dispute, what’s another few weeks?

But prudence may also set a dangerous precedent. Having backed down from one recalcitrant rancher, what does BLM do the next time another refuses to abide by the law? “After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million,” Kornze said in a statement. “The bureau will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.” A BLM spokesman would not say what those remedies might be, and declined to make officials available to explain how the agency may treat similar situations in the future.

The government’s legal case against Bundy is strong. It has been winning courtroom battles against the rancher since 1998, and over the past two years has obtained court orders requiring Bundy to remove his cattle from public lands. This month’s roundup was a long-threatened last resort, and Bundy’s success in spurning it could spark copycat rebellions.

“I’m very concerned about that, as I’m sure others are,” says Bob Abbey, a former BLM director and state director for Nevada. Nearly all ranchers whose animals graze on public land are in compliance with federal statutes, Abbey says. But “there always is a chance that someone else may look at what happened with Mr. Bundy and decided to take a similar route.”

Especially since Bundy has become something of a folk hero for people who resent federal control of the old American frontier. The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of land, including about 60% of the territory across a swath of 12 Western states. About 85% of the land in Nevada is managed by the feds.

Bundy, whose ancestors have inhabited the disputed land since the 19th century, rejects this arrangement. The rancher, whose family did not respond to multiple interview requests from TIME, says he does not recognize federal authority over Nevada’s public land. “I abide by all state laws,” he said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. “But I abide by almost zero federal laws.” He has warned that the impoundment of his cattle would spark a “range war,” and said in a court deposition that he would attempt to block a federal incursion, using “whatever it takes.”

Likeminded libertarians in the West have resurrected the spirit of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a 1970s-era movement to transfer control of federal lands to the states. Demar Dahl, an Elko County, Nev., commissioner and longtime friend of Bundy, says the rancher is willing to pay the back fees he owes (though both dispute the amount) to the county or to the state, but not the federal government. “He says the federal government doesn’t have the authority to collect the fees,” Dahl says. “You can call him bullheaded. He’s a strong and moral person. He decides what needs to be done and how, and where he stands.”

To Bundy’s supporters, the legal proceedings are nothing but a land grab. And some of them believe government invoked the protection of the desert tortoise as a pretext. This line of thinking holds that Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader whose former aide, Kornze, now runs the BLM, wants to requisition the land so that his son and Chinese investors can build a lucrative solar farm. At the same time, the left sees in the resistance the ubiquitous hand of the Koch brothers, whose main political outfit, Americans for Prosperity, has rallied support for Bundy.

While the protesters have mostly dispersed, the standoff “isn’t over,” Reid declared Monday. And local officials know just how close they crept to a cataclysmic incident. “That was as close to a catastrophe as I think we’re ever going to see happen,” Dahl says.

The high drama seemed to stoke a sense of theatrics in the protesters. At a press conference on April 14, they invoked battles against the British and shouted quotes from the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace, memorialized in the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart. The men who rode to Bundy’s defense got to play the hero in the movies of their minds; the threat is that the next climax doesn’t have a peaceful ending.

Bundy “would probably rather be a martyr than a profitable rancher,” says Shea, the former BLM director. “Eventually, you have to draw the line. We go through these sad episodes where fanaticism has to be brought under legal control. And inevitably, somebody is killed.”

Military

The Devil Dogs Turn Pavlovian

Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody, testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Personnel at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Marionne T. Mangrum)
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett testifying before the Senate. Sgt. Marionne T. Mangrum / Marine Corps

Reaction to top Marine's comments show how tough military compensation reform will be

The top enlisted Marine called for a little bit of sacrifice by his fellow devil dogs last week that has set off a firestorm that’s still raging. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked Sergeant Major Micheal Barrett what would be the impact of slowing the rate of growth in military compensation. He responded:

Marines don’t run around and ask and what’s on their mind is compensation, benefits or retirement and modernization. That’s not on their minds…Hey, you know what? Out of pocket, you know what, I truly believe it will raise discipline and it’ll raise it because you’ll have better spending habits, you won’t be so wasteful.

The independent Marine Corps Times newspaper lit the fuze with its headline on a story about the decorated combat vet’s comments:

Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Barrett: Less pay raises discipline

That led him to issue a clarifying letter:

Recent reporting of my testimony may have left you with a mistaken impression that I don’t care about your quality of life and that I support lower pay for servicemembers. This is not true.

In fact, despite the headline, no one is talking about cutting troops’ pay. But like Pavlov’s dogs—trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell—some troops pounce at any suggestion of scaling back military compensation.

“If you consider the benefits military members exorbitant like the Sgt Maj does that’s your right, bought and paid for with the blood of the millions you think are overpaid,” said one commenter who said he earned $40,000, including combat pay, for the year he spent in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. “It boggles my mind that anyone can justify that as well compensated considering I was working minimum 13 hr days at that time, living in a shared space with 17 other guys sharing a single bathroom and even in a fairly friendly (as war zones go) environment was shot at twice and almost stepped on a landmine,” he said. “Pardon me if I have a tough time considering that equal to managing a Kinko’s, working as an intern or selling cars.”

“Enlisted troops are rather well compensated for their education/experience level,” a second poster noted. “Not saying they deserve a pay cut by any means, but for someone in their early 20s to gross 45-55 thousand a year is nothing to sneeze at.”

“Enlisted troops are paid better than some civilian counterparts,” a third countered. “But the fact their life is on the line, there isn’t enough pay. If you didn’t serve, shut the heck up!”

A common theme among posts by readers of the Times story is that those who didn’t serve in uniform don’t have the bona fides to discuss military compensation. That, of course, is what has happened on Capitol Hill. With fewer veterans in Congress, lawmakers—perhaps feeling just a tad guilty—routinely have boosted annual military pay raises beyond what their commanders and Pentagon civilians have recommended.

Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he wants to take the $2.1 billion a year saved by modest trims in compensation and invest it in training and weapons. Those are the changes Barrett was discussing. Here’s what Hagel said:

We need some modest adjustments to the growth in pay and benefits…First, we will continue to recommend pay raises. They won’t be substantial as in the past years—as substantial—but they will continue. Second, we will continue subsidizing off-base housing. The 100% benefit of today will be reduced, but only to 95%, and it will be phased in over the next several years. Third, we are not shutting down any commissaries. We recommend gradually phasing out some subsidies, but only for domestic commissaries that are not in remote locations. Fourth, we recommend simplifying and modernizing our three TRICARE programs by merging them into one TRICARE system, with modest increases in co-pays and deductibles for retirees and family members, and encourage using the most affordable means of care. Active-duty personnel will still receive health care that is entirely free.

The firefight suggests just how tough it is going to be to tame military spending. After all, the Marines have the largest share of first-termers among the four services, many of whom stay for only a single four-year hitch before moving on with their lives. If words from the senior enlisted leatherneck can set off such a storm among his troops, it’s likely to be even tougher to convince soldiers, sailors and airmen that they may be forced to relax their webbed belts a little more slowly than they had planned.

But this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The fealty the nation has shown its warriors since 9/11 has put it into this predicament. Granted, it is impossible to place a price on the blood U.S. troops have shed on behalf of the 99% of the citizenry who elected not to serve, nor on the mental wounds more than a decade of war has inflicted on many of them.

But it’s also true that U.S. troops—all volunteers—earn more than 90% of their civilian counterparts with similar education and experience.

“In my 33 years, I have never seen this level of quality of life ever—we have never had it so good,” Barrett told the Senate panel. “If we don’t get a hold of slowing the growth, we will become an entitlements-based, a health-care-provider-based corps, and not a warfighting organization.” Those are words you often hear in private, but rarely out in the open.

In some quarters, the military is increasingly sounding less like a service, and more like a guild.

Race

Hate Crimes May Be Down, But Anti-Semitism Is Still Malignant

Jewish Community Shooting Suspect Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr. Appears At Arraignment
Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr., appears at his arraignment on capital murder and first-degree murder charges on April 15, 2014 in New Century, Kansas. Getty Images

Experts say Sunday’s shooting spree that left three dead is a reminder that anti-Jewish hate lives on in the U.S.

The killings of three people near Jewish Community Centers in Kansas City on April 13 were senseless, but investigators have gathered the alleged shooter’s intention was clear. The Southern Poverty Law Center said that suspect Frazier Glenn Miller, who went by the alias Frazier Glenn Cross when he was arrested, was a former grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan and “raging anti-Semite” who spent the past several decades advocating for the extermination of Jews.

Miller spewed hate in over 12,000 posts on the anti-Semitic, white supremacist website the Vanguard News Network, using slurs to refer to Jews and blacks and calling the U.S. federal government the JOG, or the Jewish Occupied Government.

Thankfully, America is not teeming with Frazier Glenn Millers. Hate crime overall is declining in the U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. In 2012, law enforcement agencies reported 5,796 total hate crime incidents, accounting for 6,718 offenses, down from 6,222 incidents of hate crime and 7,354 offenses in 2011.

But despite that downturn, anti-Semitic sentiments still make up the bulk of religious-bias crimes in the U.S. Nearly 60% of the 1,166 anti-religious hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2012 were anti-Jewish. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of their journal the Intelligence Report, says Miller’s April 13 shooting spree is a reminder of a minor but notable undercurrent of anti-Semitism in American society.

“Overall the level of anti-Semitism in society in dropping, but there is a significant and scary underworld of people out there who really hate Jews; who see them as the evil behind all other evils,” Potok says. “It is not usually shown to most Americans, but it is steaming right along.”

The SPLC says the election of the nation’s first African American president in 2008 propelled the emergence of hate groups and pro-Patriot groups concerned about the loss of a white majority in America. The center estimates there are 939 neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and black separatist hate groups operating across the country. Though these groups are often associated with anti-black racism, Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and an expert on hate crimes, says anti-Semitic sentiment is much more prevalent among white supremacists.

“Assault against black Americans, people of color, seems to be more physical and personal,” Levin says, “But if you listen to the ideology of white supremacy you’ll see that Jews are despised much more than blacks are.” Levin says white supremacists see Jewish Americans not only exerting control over the government and the media, but also being aligned with the devil. That sentiment was made clear upon review of some of the messageboard threads on Vanguard News Network, of which Cross was an active participant.

But while anti-Semitic sentiment remains virulent, the Anti-Defamation League, which keeps track of attacks on Jews, says anti-Semitic attacks are down. A 2013 report by the ADL showed there was a slight increase in the number of violent anti-Semitic crimes reported to its call centers in 2013. But, Levin says, acts of violence against Jews are rare. Far more violent attacks are carried out against people based on race and sexual orientation, according to the FBI. Hate crimes against Jews more often involve the desecration of property. According to the ADL report, there were 315 acts of vandalism reported to their call centers in 2013, compared to 31 acts of violence.

The reason? Levin says it’s as simple as hate-mongers having a hard time identifying people based on their religion when they’re not in church. Sadly, the evidence of that was all too clear after Sunday’s shooting. Not one of the three people killed—neither Teresa Lamanno nor Reat Underwood, nor William Corporon—was Jewish.

Senate

McConnell’s Democratic Challenger Outraises Him in First Quarter

Kentucky Democratic Senate Candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes listens as Former President Bill Clinton delivers remarks during a campaign event at the Galt House Hotel on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 in Louisville, Ky.
Kentucky Democratic Senate Candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes listens as Former President Bill Clinton delivers remarks during a campaign event at the Galt House Hotel on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 in Louisville, Ky. Luke Sharrett—Getty Images

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has outpaced the Senate minority leader in fundraising for the second time — though McConnell still has over twice as much cash in the bank

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes reported raising over $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2014, beating Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s haul of $2.4 million.

McConnell is facing a primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who raised $1.2 million this cycle. McConnell has raised a total of $22.3 million this cycle, but has also had a high burn rate, spending more than $12 million already. The Senate minority leader spent nearly $3 million in the first quarter, about 120% the amount he took in.

McConnell leads Bevin by more than 30 points in polls ahead of the May 20 primary. But he trails Grimes by 0.5% in a Real Clear Politics average of Kentucky polls. “McConnell’s spent more than $12 million and he’s still behind Alison in the polls,” Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst tells TIME.

Although Grimes outraised McConnell this quarter, the Kentucky senator can still boast $10.4 million cash on hand to Grimes’ nearly $5 million.

Grimes reported more than 45,000 donors, hailing from all 50 states and all 120 Kentucky counties.

MORE: Should Mitch McConnell be on the 2014 TIME 100?

Criminal Justice

Obama Commutes Sentence Of Man Given Three Extra Years In Jail By A Typo

President Obama reduced the sentence of another felon who was convicted of drug crimes Tuesday, as his Justice Department continues its push to reduce sentences for petty drug criminals

President Obama commuted the sentence of a man given three extra years in jail because of a typographical error on Tuesday. This latest act of clemency by Obama, who has been called the least merciful president in recent history, aligns with his policy proposals to reduce sentences for petty drug criminals.

Ceasar Huerta Cantu pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering charges in 2006. Under sentencing guidelines, Cantu was only supposed to serve 138 months behind bars for his “base offense level”—a measure of how serious a crime is—of 34. But administrators put the level in at 36, which caused him to receive a 180-month sentence.

Because Cantu failed to report the mistake in time for a judicial correction, the only way to fix it was through executive clemency. On Tuesday, Obama’s commutation reduced Cantu’s sentence to 138 months in prison, all of which have already been served. Cantu received five years supervised release in 2006.

Tuesday’s commutation is the ninth Obama has granted in the past five months, all of which have reduced the sentences of drug-related offenders. In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack cocaine offenders serving lengthy sentences, as part of his continuous effort to roll back the disparity between crack cocaine convictions, and those for other drugs. Seven of the eight convicted felons who were granted commutations in December of last year will have been released by Thursday.

Judicial experts predict Obama will continue granting mass commutations for low-level drug offenders, and some are estimating hundreds will be granted before Obama leaves office.

2014 Election

Democratic Senator Attacks Obama Administration In New Ad

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, chair of the Senate's Energy Committee, has long pushed for President Obama to expand offshore oil and gas drilling—which he supported before the BP oil spill but has since walked back on—and now she says he's 'simply wrong'

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu knows how to win tough reelections. As a Democrat in a Red State, she is one of the most targeted and endangered senators every time she’s up for reelection. In 2002, she won with just 51.7% of the vote and in 2008 she got 52.1%. So, it’s not that surprising that she’s out today with an ad that strikes at President Obama, her party’s leader who also happens to be incredibly unpopular in Louisiana.

The high-production quality spot shows Landrieu in a series of television appearances running on TV sets in homes and bars in local Louisiana locales. In the appearances, she’s slamming Obama for his oil and gas policies. Landrieu has long pushed Obama to expand offshore oil and gas drilling—a plan he supported before the BP oil spill but has since been slow to implement. “The administration’s policies are simply wrong when it comes to oil and gas politics in this nation,” Landrieu says in the ad.

Then, at the end of the spot, Landrieu pivots to promote her own power in Washington. “Now as the new chairman of the Energy Committee,” the narrator says, “she holds the most powerful position in the Senate for Louisiana.” In other words: Washington is dysfunctional, but Landrieu is the one sane—and powerful—person in it and she’s fighting for you guys. It’s a really nice ad that plays to Landrieu’s greatest strength right now: her chairmanship and her advocacy of the state’s oil and gas Industry,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

Conservatives are slamming the spot as fake. According to the Weekly Standard, Landrieu reenacted a scene from an Energy Committee hearing where she is seen saying: “They have to sit here and listen to the federal government say, ‘We can’t share a penny with you’? I will not rest until this injustice is fixed,” Landrieu says. “Do you think there are a bunch of fairy godmothers out there who just wave a magic wand?”

She did actually say essentially the same thing—in a much more rambling way without “fairy godmothers”— in a real hearing, so it’s not as dishonest as some other ads running the Landrieu race. Start watching here at about 2 hours and 27 minutes to see the differences.

In the first quarter of 2014, Landrieu outraised her top GOP opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, $1.8 million to $1.2 million, and had about $2.5 million more in the bank at the end of March. But she trails Cassidy in polls by 2.4%, according to an average of Louisiana polls by Real Clear Politics.

And at any rate, football and hunting may end up being Landrieu’s saving graces. If no candidate garners 50% in the Bayou State’s voting system, the top two vote earners will advance to a Dec. 6 run off, which is likely. Dec. 6 happens to be the last day of buck hunting in Louisiana. And Dec. 6 is the date of the SECs championship football game, so if Louisiana State University if having a good season, that could effect turn out. And lower turnout always favors the incumbent.

justice

Holder Seeks $15 Million to Train Cops for Mass Shootings

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2014 in New York.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2014 in New York. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Attorney General Eric Holder has asked Congress to approve $15 million in special funds specifically to train law enforcement personnel for mass shooting situations in the wake of recent shootings at Fort Hood and the Jewish community center near Kansas City

Attorney General Eric Holder called on Congress Tuesday to approve $15 million of special funds to help train law enforcement for mass shooting situations.

Holder’s request comes in the wake of recent shootings at Fort Hood in Texas and a Jewish Community Center in Kansas amid a growing sense that mass shootings are on the rise in the United States. Three people were killed in each shooting. Holder said active shooter incidents have tripled in frequency since 2009.

“Today, I am urging Congress to approve President Obama’s request for $15 million for active shooter training and other officer safety initiatives, “ Holder said in a recorded statement. “This critical funding would help the Justice Department ensure that America’s police officers have the tools and guidance they need to effectively respond to active shooter incidents whenever and wherever they arise.”

Morning Must Reads: April 15

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: Russian Prime Minister warned of Ukraine descending into civil war; One year since the Boston Marathon attacks; Global greenhouse emissions are skyrocketing; Cliven Bundy; 2016 presidential election; Tax Day!

  • “The Ukrainian government announced the start of a staged counteroffensive Tuesday to reclaim control of the eastern part of the country, as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that Ukraine was descending into civil war.” [WashPost]
    • “[White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney said [Monday] the U.S. will consider next steps including a new round of sanctions against Russia in concert with European partners. European foreign ministers are meeting in Luxembourg Monday to weigh new sanctions against Russian officials because of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. He also confirmed reports that CIA Director John Brennan was in Kiev this weekend as part of a broader trip to Europe.” [WashExaminer]
  • A Year Since Marathon Attacks, Many Survivors Still Struggle [Boston Globe]
    • “On April 15, 2013, their lives intersected at the Marathon. One year later, they returned to the scene for a historic photo shoot.” [Boston Globe]
  • Nonprofits Caught in Pension Crossfire Between Foundation, Unions [WSJ]
  • A Nevada rancher who succeeded in reclaiming his seized cattle from federal land managers over the weekend by rallying armed supporters called on local sheriffs across the country on Monday to join his crusade against government overreach.” [Reuters]
    • Two decades after Nevada’s founders proclaimed unswerving obedience to federal authority, Cliven Bundy’s family first settled the land where he and his supporters now make their heavily armed stand against federal power. ” [Atlantic]
  • “Global greenhouse emissions are skyrocketing. Emissions cuts required to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change are steep. And despite decades of talk, world governments have made paltry efforts to address the problem. That’s the grim picture painted by a major report on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions released [Sunday] by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” [Science]
    • “Tom Steyer is betting that campaigning on climate change can win elections. Is the verdant billionaire right?” [Economist]
  • Ted Cruz is Beating Rand Paul in the Tea Party Primary [Atlantic]
    • “Rand Paul for President: Because what the GOP needs is a humbling landslide defeat” [WSJ/Bret Stephens]
  • The Second Coming of Scott Brown [Yahoo!]
  • Happy Tax Day [New Yorker]
    • With federal returns due Tuesday, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center says that a deal struck just months after President Obama’s re-election will force the top 0.1 percent—those making more than roughly $2.6 million a year—to pay an average of around $232,000 more in taxes for 2013.” [Hill]
Military

Disaster in the Sky: Old Planes, Inexperienced Pilots—and No More Parachutes

A view shows wreckage of Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker plane near site of crash near Kyrgyz village of Chaldovar
Part of the tail of the doomed KC-135. Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters

A routine Air Force mission supporting the Afghan war turns tragic

Putting young, inexperienced pilots into a 50-year-old Air Force plane seems like a risky idea. Even riskier? Getting rid of crew’s parachutes to save money.

But that’s what the Air Force did last May 3, when it launched a mission to refuel U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan using a KC-135 Stratotanker delivered by Boeing to the Air Force on June 26, 1964. A problem with the plane’s flight-control system cascaded toward trouble after actions by what the Air Force has concluded was its inadequately-trained crew. In short order, the double-barreled dilemmas ripped the airplane’s tail off three miles above Kyrgyzstan’s Himalayan foothills. The plane quickly entered a steep dive, dooming all three aboard.

Both pilots graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008, shortly after the service decided it couldn’t afford to keep parachutes on KC-135s. “A lot of time, manpower and money goes into buying, maintaining and training to use parachutes,” the Air Force said in March 2008. “With the Air Force hungry for cost-saving efficiency under its Air Force for Smart Operations in the 21st Century Program, commonly known as AFSO 21, the parachutes were deemed obsolete.”

Captain Mark Tyler Voss, 27, Captain Victoria Pinckney, 27, and Technical Sergeant Herman “Tre” Mackey III, 30, were the first airmen killed in a KC-135 crash since the Air Force stripped the parachutes from the planes.

Given the violent end of their mission, the parachutes may not have made any difference, according to the official Air Force investigation into the crash. “The [accident investigation] board sort of concluded, informally, in talking among themselves, that even if there had been parachutes, there would have been no way for them in this particular case for them to be used,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for the service’s Air Mobility Command, said Monday.

Others aren’t so sure. “Deploying aircrews to a combat zone without parachutes is an unconscionable risk,” says Alan Diehl, who spent 18 years as an Air Force civilian investigating the safety of the service’s aircraft. “The airmen aboard this KC-135 would have had to don their chutes, jettison the cockpit bailout hatch, and dive overboard—all in a matter of seconds. But to take away the option just seems wrong.”

The aerial tanker arrived in Kyrgyzstan the day before the accident. Earlier flight-control problems had reportedly been fixed. Pilot Tyler, co-pilot Pinckney and, Mackey, the refueling boom operator, boarded the aircraft early that afternoon at the Pentagon’s transit hub at Manas, just outside Bishkek, the country’s capital.

120522-F-FI711-030
A KC-135 refuels an F-15 fighter. 2nd Lt. Lindsay Horn / Air Force

They were the first crew to fly the 707-based aircraft toward Afghanistan, loaded with 175,000 pounds of aviation fuel, since its arrival at Manas. Tanker crews are the unsung heroes of the service, the so-called “global reach” that vastly extends how far Air Force aircraft can fly without landing to refuel.

Voss had slightly more than 1,000 hours flying such tankers; Pickney had fewer than 600. Mackey was the most experienced member of the crew, with 3,350 KC-135 flight hours, but as the boom operator he had nothing to do with flying the airplane.

Shortly after the flight, dubbed Shell 77, took off, a problem with the flight-control system triggered “rudder hunting,” which caused the airplane to yaw, its nose turning from left to right and back again.

A dutch roll. Picascho

Nine minutes into the flight, the plane entered a “dutch roll,” which can happen as increasing yaw generates more lift on one wing than the other. That causes the plane to roll, until increased drag pulls the wing back and the process repeats itself with the other wing. “It’s kind of waffling,” the crew reported as they climbed above 20,000 feet. “The jet’s bent.”

The pilots tried to bring the five-second-long dutch rolls under control by using the plane’s rudder and auto-pilot. But that only made matters worse.

“The cumulative effects of the malfunctioning [flight-control system], coupled with autopilot use and rudder movements during the unrecognized dutch roll, generated dutch roll forces that exceeded the mishap aircraft’s design structural limits,” the Air Force said in its investigation into the crash, released last month. “The tail section failed and separated from the aircraft, causing the mishap aircraft to pitch down sharply, enter into a high-speed dive, explode inflight and subsequently impact the ground.”

Voss’s superiors described him as a “peerless aviator” who was “highly motivated and extremely dedicated.” Pickney’s commanders said she was “a superior leader with the drive and ability to succeed at any task.”

But despite their demonstrated skills, the investigation said that instead of trying to halt the dutch roll with the rudder and auto-pilot, they should have shut down the malfunctioning flight-control system and manually used the ailerons on the main wings to regain control.

So why didn’t they?

“The mishap crew appears to not have been adequately trained for the dutch roll recognition and recovery; they experienced a condition they had not encountered in training,” the investigation concluded. “The mishap crew received a total of 10-15 minutes of recognition and recovery training several years prior to the mishap,” during initial pilot training.

Such training “appears to be insufficient,” the probe added. “The mishap crew was a qualified, but minimally experienced, crew” whose “inexperience led them to rely on the autopilot to make timely inputs in an unstable flight regime. Although the Inflight Manual does not explicitly prohibit autopilot use in dutch roll, the system is incapable of making the precisely timed inputs that are required to counteract dutch roll. Both times the mishap aircraft engaged the autopilot the oscillations grew worse.”

Shouldn’t KC-135 pilots train for such predicaments in their simulators? They can’t. “Insidious onset of dutch roll is impossible to replicate in KC-135 simulator training due to mechanical limitations,” the probe said. Nor can the simulator replicate more serious forms of the roll: “A former KC-135 Instructor Pilot and current simulator operator, who experienced severe dutch roll in flight, confirmed the current simulator training does not reproduce a severe dutch roll.”

Can’t pilots practice it, carefully, while actually flying? No. “The Inflight Manual prohibits pilots from practicing dutch roll recognition and recovery in the aircraft, specifically stating `intentionally-induced dutch roll and aerobatics of any kind are strictly prohibited’” the investigation noted.

Once their plane lost its tail, was the crew’s fate sealed? “Egress was not possible,” the accident report said. “The KC-135R is not equipped with parachutes, ejection seats, or any other means of inflight egress.” The report didn’t mention that parachutes had been on the planes until 2008.

The crew “made no comment on the flight data recorder that `We need to get out of here’ or `This is going down,’” Thomas, the Air Force spokesman, said (the recorder shut down when the plane was at 21,760 feet). “The indications were that they continued to fight to regain control of the aircraft until probably they lost consciousness.”

And how did that happen? “There is some surmising that goes on,” Thomas explained. “But [the accident board] had several experts to address this point directly, and their best understanding of what probably happened—because they have to put together their best guess based on the flight data—is that when the tail broke off, the aircraft that remained pitched, and because it was in the middle of a dutch roll it probably pitched up first, because as the tail section broke off it probably gained altitude as part of the physics of it swinging back and forth, they probably experienced negative G-forces that would have probably blacked them out.”

That 2008 Air Force news article detailed the logic of getting rid of the KC-135’s parachutes:

By design, parachutes slow things down. Crew members forced to evacuate in-flight aircraft with parachutes, for example, have much gentler impacts with the ground than those without chutes. But the only thing being slowed by parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers, Air Force leaders recently decided, was the mission. So they got rid of them. Removing parachutes from military aircraft may sound peculiar, but KC-135s are not like other aircraft. They seldom have mishaps, and the likelihood a KC-135 crew member would ever need to use a parachute is extremely low.

“The [accident investigation board’s] technical experts didn’t recall that there’s ever been an attempted, successful or otherwise, egress from a tanker aircraft,” the Air Force’s Thomas said.

But the technical experts are wrong, according to former airman Joseph Heywood. He bailed out of a KC-135 over Michigan—along with three other airmen—as their plane ran out of fuel in August 1969 (the pilot landed the plane short of the runway, but safely, at the now-closed K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base). “If they were in a dutch roll, I think it’d be almost impossible for them to get out,” he said. But removing the parachutes “doesn’t make any sense—it’s just another way of saying that money is more important than people.”

Bailing out used to be a key part of the KC-135’s Cold War mission. “Our job was to fly up and plug B-52s up near Greenland,” he says. “And if they demanded it, to give them all of our fuel, and then to bail out onto the ice pack and make our way back on foot to Billy Mitchell field in Milwaukee.”

The missing parachutes don’t bother Heywood now. “It doesn’t cause me any heartburn, because I’m not one of the people flying them,” he says. But the former Air Force captain well remembers when he needed one. “The day after I bailed out I took a bottle of booze—I think it was Chivas Regal, actually—to the guy who packed mine,” he recalled. “I’d rather have a slim chance than no chance.”

The combination of an aging aircraft, poorly-trained young pilots, and the need to save money that led the Air Force to remove the parachutes, shows a force frayed by ever-tightening, and perhaps misallocated, budgets. “The various problems surfaced by this mishap—overlooked maintenance issues on older aircraft, limited crew experience and training, poor flight simulator fidelity, and no parachutes—are all driven by funding limitations,” former Air Force crash investigator Diehl says. “The Pentagon and our Congress need to stop sequestering safety.”

The Air Force recently detailed changes it is taking following the crash. KC-135 crews will be getting more training to help them deal with dutch rolls. The service is revising flight manuals, beefing up maintenance, and improving rudder controls for the 396 KC-135s still flying. The fleet is also in the middle of a $1 billion refurbishment. But restoring parachutes to the planes—slated to fly until at least 2040—isn’t on the list of improvements.

Transit Center honors fallen heros
An honor guard carries photos of the KC-135 crew members during a memorial service at Manas six days after the crash. SSgt. Stephanie Rubi / Air Force
health

Lawmakers to E-Cig Makers: Stop Preying on Minors!

Top US Tobacco Companies Enter E-Cigarette Market
A patron enjoys an electronic cigarette at the Vapor Shark store in Miami on Feb. 20, 2014 Joe Raedle—Getty Images

In a 43-page report, a group of congressional Democrats led by Dick Durbin of Illinois stressed the need for federal regulation of e-cigarettes, citing marketing efforts aimed at minors and a need for more information on health risks for consumers

In a report published on Monday, 11 Congress members recommended federal regulations on e-cigarettes that would include banning sales to anyone under 18, halting TV and radio ads, and educating the general public about the risks associated with inhaling nicotine vapors.

The Gateway to Addiction report written by the lawmakers’ staff after surveying e-cig makers finds e-cigarette companies are using marketing tactics that appeal to young people, such as handing out samples at events like music festivals, social-media promotion and offering kid-friendly flavors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 1.78 million children and teens tried e-cigarettes in 2012.

“E-cigarette makers are starting to prey on kids, just like big tobacco companies,” said Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California. “With over a million youth now using e-cigarettes, FDA needs to act without further delay to stop companies from marketing their addictive products to children.”

Though use is up, the Food and Drug Administration has not fully studied the products — according to its website consumers are not aware of the risks of use, the amount of nicotine or other chemicals being inhaled and whether or not there are benefits to smoking e-cigarettes. A New York Times report from March detailed the potential dangers of the liquid nicotine found in electronic cigarettes, including vomiting, seizures and death.

According to the report, six of the surveyed e-cigarette companies support some regulation.

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