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Air Force May Have a Bitter Pill to Swallow in 'Friendly Fire' Incident

Stimulant use by pilots is focus of inquiry into the deaths of Canadians in Afghanistan.

January 04, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Air Force calls them "go pills," and that is what they do: keep pilots going in the air long after their tired minds and bodies would have preferred to fall asleep.

The stimulants have been used by fliers since World War II, and were doled out by the hundreds during the Persian Gulf War and in Afghanistan. But the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the investigation of two F-16 pilots who were taking Air Force-provided amphetamines when they mistook a midnight training exercise for hostile fire and bombed a gathering of Canadian soldiers.

Four Canadians were killed in the April incident, and eight others were wounded. The Air Force has taken the unprecedented step of pursuing criminal charges against the pilots, Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach; each faces as long as 64 years in prison.

But if the case proceeds beyond a scheduled Jan. 13 preliminary hearing, the Air Force could find many of its own practices also on trial, including its distribution of drugs that are banned in commercial aviation.

A lawyer for one of the pilots said this week that he intends to argue that the airmen's judgments were impaired by repeated use of amphetamines prescribed by Air Force doctors in Afghanistan -- drugs, he said, that would cost the pilots their jobs if they were caught using them behind the wheel of a car instead of in an F-16.

"Were these pilots' perceptions affected by their use of dextroamphetamine? I don't know," said Charles Gittins, a Virginia attorney and former naval flight officer representing one of the pilots who bombed the Canadians. "But we're going to present it and let the [court] decide."

A Pentagon investigation of the bombing ruled out the use of stimulants as a factor, concluding instead that the pilots were guilty of "reckless" behavior and violated rules of engagement.

Experts say Gittins could have a hard time connecting the pilots' fateful mistake to the influence of a relatively small dose of dextroamphetamine. Even he acknowledges that the drugs aren't at the heart of his case.

Instead, he said, the accidental bombing was the result of a series of breakdowns, including the failure of the Air Force to notify the two pilots, both members of the Illinois National Guard, that there were training exercises in the area.

But the level of attention surrounding the case is calling attention to the Air Force's little-known drug policies. Some say that if the Air Force were forced to change those policies, it also would change the nature of its pilots' missions.

Many in the service see the use of stimulants as a prerequisite for nightlong fighter patrols and transoceanic bombing runs that are mainstays of the modern aerial campaign.

"They're used because pilots are sometimes required to fly missions that exceed 10 to 12 hours," said Col. Alvina Mitchell, an Air Force spokeswoman.

"Or they're [used for] missions that are scheduled during time when pilots would ordinarily be sleeping."

Mitchell stressed that use of the pills is voluntary, safe and monitored closely by Air Force surgeons, who prescribe them only after testing pilots' reactions to them on the ground.

The Air Force has never attributed a crash or other accident to the use of stimulants, she said. But, she said, "fatigue has been cited as a contributing cause in nearly 100 mishaps."

The military has a long and uneasy history of experimenting with stimulants as a means of enhancing the performance or endurance of its fighters. Histories of World War II indicate widespread use by German and U.S. troops. But pilots' use of amphetamines expanded dramatically during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when pilots struggled to adapt to that conflict's largely nocturnal schedule.

Fliers were given "go" pills to keep them awake for night missions, and "no-go" pills, or sedatives, to help them sleep through the din and desert sun on base during the day.

Surveys show that roughly half of U.S. fighter pilots took amphetamines during the Desert Storm campaign. Some commanders were so alarmed by many pilots' growing addiction to the pills that they ordered subordinates not to use them.

Because of such concerns, the Air Force banned the use of the pills that year. But the decision was reversed in 1996, Mitchell said, because officials thought the pills could help pilots during lengthy missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the Serb province of Kosovo in Yugoslavia.

The Navy also forbade the use of stimulants during the 1990s, but lifted the ban in 1999. The policy now leaves the decision to unit commanders. But Navy officials said only a tiny fraction of Navy pilots use the pills, partly because their missions tend to be shorter than those of Air Force pilots.

"A long flight for us is six to eight hours," said one Navy officer, who asked not to be identified. Besides, he said, "Do you want to land on an aircraft carrier at night on amphetamines?"

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