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Airman Says Pilot Was Told to Hold Fire Before Bombing

Officer tells 'friendly fire' hearing that fliers fearing peril can ignore an order not to attack.

January 18, 2003|From Associated Press

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — An American pilot who mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan last year, killing four of them, was under orders to hold fire when he dropped the bomb, a fellow airman testified Friday.

However, Maj. John Milton also said "hold fire" orders do not apply when pilots believe they are under attack.

Milton spoke at a hearing to determine whether two members of his Illinois National Guard squadron should be court-martialed. Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach are charged with involuntary manslaughter and could face up to 64 years in a military prison.

An audio- and videotape of the accident, taken from Schmidt's F-16, has been a key piece of evidence, and it was played again Friday. On it, a flight controller is heard saying "hold fire" after Schmidt requests permission to fire his 20-millimeter cannons. Schmidt had spotted ground fire and thought Umbach was under attack. Milton said the order meant Schmidt must refrain from attacking.

But just four seconds later, Schmidt said he was "rolling in" to drop the guided bomb and he did so 39 seconds after the "hold fire" order. Besides killing the four soldiers, the blast wounded eight other Canadians, who had been performing anti-tank exercises with live ammunition.

Survivors testified earlier that they were not firing into the air at the time.

Under cross-examination, Milton indicated that a hold-fire order does not apply when a pilot believes he is under attack. Schmidt can also be heard on the recordings citing self-defense at the same time he said he was "rolling in."

Milton, who has flown similar F-16 missions over Afghan combat zones, was not involved in the April 17 bombing.

Milton said he was never briefed or given written materials about allies at Tarnak Farm, the firing range near Kandahar where the Canadians held their anti-tank exercises.

"There is no doubt in my mind that [the bombing] never would have happened" had the pilots been informed the Canadians would be in the area, he said.

Milton's statement contradicted earlier testimony from Col. Lawrence Stutzriem, who at the time of the bombing was with the agency responsible for coalition air operations. Stutzriem said Air Force pilots flying missions in the area had received written orders warning that allied troops would intermittently use live ammunition.

Milton said the 40-page booklet was "unworkable" because it included so much information.

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