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Judge to Rule on Whether He'll Hear Suit by Pilot

November 05, 1987|RICHARD A. SERRANO | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge said Wednesday that he will issue a written opinion today on whether he will hear a lawsuit brought by a grounded Navy pilot who wants out of the service or whether the pilot should first exhaust all of his military appeals.

Lt. Cmdr. Douglas B. Duke, a 15-year Navy veteran who graduated at the top of his Naval Academy class, is asking U.S. District Judge Earl B. Gilliam to grant him an immediate honorable discharge.

"At this point my career has been destroyed," Duke said Wednesday outside the courtroom, speaking publicly for the first time about his problems with the Navy.

"There is no other option for me. I have to stay on several time lines to make gates along my career path. But now there's little doubt that in my mind, with my already being an officer and younger men coming into flight school all the time, that I will be riffed. I'll be cut out of the Navy."

Duke, 32, contends that the Navy failed to provide him with an adequate opportunity to earn his F-14 fighter pilot wings and that he was instead given poor ratings for his test landings of the jet on aircraft carriers.

Appeal to Navy Urged

In Wednesday's hearing before Gilliam, a military lawyer argued that Duke should continue to appeal his case with the Navy. However, Duke's attorney told the judge that Duke has already been through the Navy appeals process, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Duke is hoping for a speedy resolution of the case because he has been ordered to report by Nov. 30 for non-flying duties aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger in the Persian Gulf region.

The son of a career Army colonel and born into a strong military family, Duke once had a bright future in the Navy. He was graduated in 1976 as the No. 1 cadet in his Annapolis class and received high marks in his initial navigator and flight training instruction at Pensacola, Fla., and at Miramar Naval Air Station.

However, in the high-pressure atmosphere of fighter pilot competition, Duke often scored below-average in his attempts at landing the F-14 on aircraft carriers at sea. After several review boards and more test landings, he was grounded from flight status last year, then redesignated a non-flying officer.

While the Navy contends that he just could not pass the grade as a fighter pilot, Duke said he was given too many other administrative duties as a lieutenant commander and was not allowed to concentrate solely on pilot training.

'Very Loyal to Navy'

"I'm not particularly bitter," Duke said. "I'm very loyal to the Navy and I support its mission. The Navy is really all I've ever known and I was raised in the service.

"But it's really unfortunate now that it's come to this. I wouldn't say the Navy has let me down. But certain people in the Navy have."

He also denied that his lawsuit was an attempt to avoid service in the Persian Gulf war zone. He said he already has made three tours of duty in that region, including one in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Duke was informed in September, 1986, that he would receive orders in October, 1987, to report to the Ranger for duty. Those orders take effect Nov. 30. His lawsuit was filed Sept. 30.

"My decision to take legal action was made long before my orders were issued," he said. "I approached Mr. Stout way back in August."

A key issue in the case is that Duke agreed to serve an additional five years in the Navy in return for being accepted into fighter pilot training.

Duke said he should not have to serve the extra time because the Navy never gave him the chance to succeed as a fighter pilot. But the Navy maintains that Duke is obligated to serve through March, 1989, regardless of whether he earned his wings.

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