Pause and Remember: Sitka 43

FreyholtzNearly four years ago, a C-17 lifted off the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska to conduct practice for an upcoming airshow.  A few minutes later, it impacted the ground and exploded.  Four airmen were lost.  The pilot of that ill-fated jet was a cherished friend and two-time squadron mate of mine.  He left behind a crowd of survivors and admirers who have silently mourned his loss, constrained from full-heartedly celebrating his life because of the sorrowful manner of his death.  This Memorial Day, I’m compelled to remember him, explore the way he and his crew met their end, and what larger meaning we can extract from their fate.  I do this in part because I believe Major Mike Freyholtz and his crew deserve to have their legacy reconsidered, and in larger part because I know he’d want us to learn all we can from his this terrible loss.

The crash of Sitka 43 has been officially summarized by the Air Force as a matter of pilot error.  Mike flew the aircraft beyond its limits and his crew failed to keep him from doing so.  While this is really an incomplete description of the final link in a long chain of events, what’s clear is that Mike ended his life on a mistake.  He made a series of erroneous inputs and bad decisions in an unforgiving environment, and it cost him his life.  In the time since, his legacy has been almost entirely defined by this mistake, and a harshly negative and cold narrative concerning his death has eclipsed the reality of who he was and the life he led prior to his last moments.  He’s been caricatured by some to the world as an undisciplined “cowboy” pilot who ran amok.  The truth of Mike Freyholtz is considerably more complex.

Mike was not a reckless aviator.  In fact, he was one of the most precise and exacting pilots in the Air Force, and one of the most talented and capable warriors of his generation.  I met him when he arrived to his first operational assignment, fresh from pilot training and still wearing the bars of a Lieutenant.  As an instructor, I worked directly with this newly minted copilot and saw his promising potential immediately.  He prepared meticulously.  He divided his training flights into segments, events, and contingencies, and methodically prepared for each in detail that stunned and impressed his crewmates.  I recall conducting a pre-brief before taking him into the local traffic pattern for routine approach practice; he showed up for that briefing with detailed drawings of each of his planned approaches, with altitudes, distances, airspeeds, and configurations calculated in arduous detail.  This was exceptional preparation, and it made him an exceptional pilot from the very start.  A little over a year later, his work ethic and planning prowess made him a sought-after copilot for missions heading into incredibly demanding airfields in Afghanistan.  His aptitude and work ethic kept him consistently ahead of the aircraft and helped him serve as a risk mitigator for relatively inexperienced aircraft commanders flung into a steeply challenging environment very different from the one for which they’d been trained.  From the day his wings were pinned to the day he died, Mike Freyholtz was a disciplined and superior pilot admired by all who shared his craft.

Yet, many have compared Mike to Lieutenant Colonel Arthur “Bud” Holland, the B-52 pilot whose notorious ego and well-documented contempt for the rules culminated in the catastrophic loss of his aircraft and crew in another airshow-related accident in 1994.  This comparison is inaccurate and unfair.  Holland broke the rules, was called out for it by commanders at multiple levels, and refused to come into compliance.   Holland was interested not in pushing his aircraft to its operating limits, but in proving that those limits didn’t apply to him because he was a better pilot than any other.  He protested when he was critiqued, and his commanders deferred inappropriately to his expertise, failing to clip his wings when they should clearly have done so.  Mike Freyholtz also broke the rules.  He developed and implemented a demonstration profile that contained violations of safe performance parameters.  Over time, he and crewmates came to accept violations of the rules as routine and acceptable.  Mike ignored warnings and indications that he had come to see as temporary anomalies in the push to take the aircraft to its design limits. But in Mike’s case, no one stepped in to correct him.  No one challenged or contended with what he was doing.  It appears as though the responsible commanders who might have done so were aloof to his behavior and those who flew with him trusted his expertise more than was appropriate or safe. 

But those who knew Mike Freyholtz understand that had his commanders yanked on the reigns, he would have quickly come to heel.  He wasn’t unruly.  He was a good officer and team player who would have appreciated the correction and complied with it.  He likely would have reflected on it, incorporated the lesson into his own leadership repertoire, and emerged stronger than before.  But he would not have defied the rules consciously because he was not bent on breaking them; he was off track, and needed someone to show him the error of his ways.  There’s no evidence anyone ever did, and this demonstrates a clear and glaring contrast between Mike Freyholtz — a disciplined and talented but misguided pilot who devolved into unsafe practices by lack of supervision — and Bud Holland, a rule-breaker who was unsafe by conscious choice.

But this isn’t the only contrast between them.  Unlike Holland, Freyholtz had a superb record of war service.  He was decorated for aerial achievement in combat, and didn’t get those medals for baking cookies at the USO.  He risked his life for his country and did so with distinction. Mike logged more than 600 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, operating under threat in demanding conditions to keep ground forces sustained.  His leadership as an aircraft commander was remarkable, as he consistently pushed through obstacles to execute missions others might have found cause to avoid.  On one occasion, Mike and his crew accepted a mid-air re-route to Balad Air Base, Iraq, where they rapidly unloaded and reconfigured their C-17 for an emergency aeromedical mission.  Within two hours of receiving the original call, he had orchestrated an in-flight divert to a safe landing, dropped off cargo, picked up patients, filed a new flight plan, and had his aircraft airborne, bound for Germany rather than his original destination in northern Iraq.  His crew was credited with saving the lives of three critically wounded soldiers. Rather than terminating his mission in the cozy confines of Europe, he requested a waiver to fly an extra hour beyond the normal maximum duty day; when the waiver was approved, he and his crew returned to Balad, picked up their original cargo, and completed their mission as originally planned.  Mike had the wisdom to know that delivering his cargo was important to those waiting for it, and might even preclude the need for another medevac. He did his duty, which he saw requiring much more than bare-minimum exertion.

This is one example of countless.  He always adapted, pushed through, motivated his team, disciplined himself to rest, study, and exercise, and always looked for a way to “solve for yes” and channel his love of flying into the fulfillment of his duty.  Mike was typical of his generation of airlifters, routinely doing things that are exceptional by any historical standard and doing them in the most hazardous conditions seen by the airlift mission since WWII, but making them look easy.  But they aren’t easy, and shouldn’t ever be taken for granted. Mike deserves to have us all remember that they weren’t easy when we recall his life and his death.  Let these anecdotes substitute for the twelve years of celebration and recognition Mike never received; recognition which, had it occurred, might have given us a different lens with which to process the fateful errors he made in the end.

But Mike wasn’t just a good pilot.  He was actually a great officer, too.  As a young captain at Charleston Air Force Base, he developed a training presentation that taught his squadron mates how to utilize a new terrain avoidance system to operate more safely in the low altitude environment.  His techniques were adopted by deployed squadrons to help get C-17s in and out of the Bagram and Kandahar airfields in bad weather with an improved safety margin. At the time, this was a massive difference maker in our ability to support joint partners. Later, while leading wing training programs at McChord Air Force Base, Mike spearheaded the use of simulator rehearsal as a risk management tool.  At that time, McChord’s experience level had diminished sharply against a huge increase in combat workload as operations in Iraq intensified.  New airfields were opening up so frequently that pilots were commonly being sent into unfamiliar environments, often with poor lighting and subpar instrumentation; these were unavoidable realities of the hastily assembled operating plans of the time.  Mike saw promise in sending deploying pilots into the simulator and having them fly practice approaches to these new fields as a way to proxy for the experience they lacked.  He got a lot of pushback from squadron leaders (myself included; at the time, I couldn’t see the wisdom in what he was doing and didn’t want any new requirements levied on my pilots), but he persisted, eventually persuading squadron leaders to go into the simulator and see his idea for themselves.  They did, and were instantly convinced. This type of familiarization training quickly became a staple of pre-deployment preparation across McChord at a time when every possible risk management measure was needed.  There is no doubt in my mind that his leadership prevented mishaps and mission failures.  Before he committed his own safety compromises, Mike actually helped prevent them in others.

In considering how Mike met his end, it’s also important to consider how he began.  Mike’s most formative years as a pilot were coincident with the response to 9/11.  In the USAF airlift community, that meant a considerable shift toward greater risk acceptance.  As airlift leaders grappled to exploit the full capability of their weapon systems (especially the C-17, which by 2001 had come to represent the spine of US airlift capacity), they necessarily pushed for innovation, ingenuity, and calculated risk-taking.  They told their pilots to stop looking for ways to turn down missions and start looking for ways to get them done.  At Charleston, this push actually started before 9/11, when visionary leaders took the reigns at the base and recognized the crew force was not moving forcefully enough to develop or implement tactics capitalizing on the C-17’s unique blend of capabilities.

And thank goodness that push started when it did, given that Charleston’s airlifters formed much of the core of the critically important initial US response in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks.  But this also meant that young pilots like Mike Freyholtz would traverse their initial assignments, and their formative years as aviators, with an idiosyncratically permissive view of risk as weighed against mission necessity.  Mike’s generation have been combat pilots their entire careers.  Mike was taught to take calculated risks; in fact, he was taught that this was the necessary mindset for a successful pilot.  He, along with his generation, carried that mindset into the next decade of operations.  Their “solve for yes” mindset is the reason Air Mobility Command has been able to operate at a sustained surge level on an indefinite basis.  It’s also inescapably part of the explanation for many mishaps.  Sometimes, leaning forward a little too far causes us to fall over.  Mike leaned forward a little too far in the months leading to July 28th, 2010.  On that fateful day, he fell over.

He’s not alone.  Others have leaned forward to accept missions into airfields that were not acceptable, through weather that was un-flyable, or into challenging conditions for which they were not sufficiently rested or prepared.  Most often, they’ve adapted and overcome.  Occasionally, they’ve fallen over.  The Air Force’s safety culture tends to publicly personalize losses of aircraft to those making the errors most proximate to the final catastrophe.  This seldom explains what really happened.  Each mishap has a story, and these stories often include common themes like insidiously aggregated risk, poor or absent leadership, a breakdown in mutual support, an improper safety climate or attitude, slippage in training or proficiency, or subpar planning and mission management at headquarters level.  These themes are seldom discussed publicly, and this diminishes the open communication that is key to safer operations.  It also leaves the survivors of those whose mistakes formed the terminus of the mishap story bearing an unfair and total burden.  Mike Freyholtz will forever be associated with the loss of his aircraft and his crewmates.  Perhaps if his memory didn’t have to bear the complete burden of that loss, there would be more space in his remembrance for the fact that he was, before the day he died, one of the most qualified and admired pilots in his community, a devoted father, a valued friend, a fantastic instructor with a scientific mind conditioned by an artistic impulse, and a hero who always leaned forward for his country. 

Mike would want us to learn everything possible from his death, and there is one essential lesson from the crash of Sitka 43 that applies universally: the importance of persistent and meaningful leader involvement.  When leaders focus improperly, fail to prioritize, grow aloof, trust without verifying, or suffer from overload such that they do not get and stay involved in the daily activities of their organizations, dysfunction is free to take root and grow.  Mike was a solid gold aviator whose bad habits took root and grew insidiously because no one in a position to doubt or check him noticed or took the right actions.

But the Air Force has always understood that no matter how hard a leader tries, the fluidity, velocity, and complexity of air operations will prevent a leader from catching every cue.  This is why the service has always championed a strong culture of mutual support, known colloquially as a wingman culture.  This type of organizational life rejects deference and hierarchy in favor of assertiveness.  It rejects passivity and acceptance in favor of questioning and curiosity.  It has always been understood that when leaders fail to notice, wingmen must be the failsafe.  When both fail, doom is inevitable, because humans are not naturally self-limiting creatures.  As a subset of humans, pilots are comparatively more prone to overconfidence since their job requires a high level of confidence; they are more prone to exceeding limits since their job requires pushing to the edge of limits. As a young officer, I had a squadron commander pound this point home, telling me “when you go it alone, you pay the price … and so does your wingman.”  He understood, as the Air Force always has, that aviation contains an embedded conflict between the need for teamwork and the impulse for soloist individuality.  This conflict must be held in careful balance for the balance between safety and mission accomplishment to be maintained.  This is why the service’s nascent embrace of a loyalty culture and unquestioning compliance mindset are deeply concerning; these things move airmen away from being good wingmen.

Indeed, despite earnest efforts, the Air Force has in recent years allowed its wingman culture to degrade precipitously.  This has happened because — along with the conscious or subconscious betrayal of its cultural roots — the service has been given to excessive tinkering with human resource processes, leaving squadrons insufficiently supported, resourced, unified, organized, or focused enough for leaders to work on creating the right climate and culture to support professional aviation.  The service has attempted to arrest this degradation with sloganeering.  It’s not working.  Much as Mike made mistakes that led to his demise, he was failed by his leaders and his wingmen.  Unless this lesson in internalized, the service is doomed to serially repeating it.

Mike Freyholtz’s journey is perhaps the ultimate pilot story.  He led a life characterized by method, precision, and repetition, but met his fate in a single moment that betrayed any sense of order or control. He endured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of exhilaration and danger.  Pilots spend much of their lives planning, only to learn that they don’t get to decide where the flight plan leads, or where it will terminate.  They celebrate freedom from the surly bonds of Earth, but in the end they long to be safely back on terra firma.  They enjoy pushing the boundaries of technology, but find its scientific limits constraining.  They dance with fortune and enjoy it, but forget how given fortune is to betrayal, and sudden that betrayal can be.  From the time he was knee high, Mike sought this life of fascinating contradictions and extremes.  History may find him guilty of loving flying just a little too much.  But it should also find him guilty of benevolence, spirit, and a special patriotism that arose from his twin infatuations with service to something greater than himself and beating the laws of physics at their own game.

But beyond exemplifying what it means to be an American pilot, Mike’s story reflects what it means to be human.  Great achievements coupled with profound mistakes.  The galactic highs of success pulled Earthward the gravity of failure.  Remarkable joy and immeasurable pain, punctuated by the suddenness of loss and the revelation that control is illusory, even for the most capable among us.

But we do get to choose how we remember our fallen.  To continue recalling Mike Freyholtz according to the shorthand explanations that attend to his last seconds of life is neither instructive nor just.  It does not uplift, which is one thing his story should do.  He was a tough, smart, gentle American hero who gave his life to his country, saved lives, advanced the cause of freedom, and enriched everyone around him. He was also, like all of us, flawed.  But his children, his surviving family, and the teammates he left behind deserve to look upon his memory and cherish what he gave unabashedly.  They deserve to smile upon him with the same ease he always smiled, even when the times were tough.  

This essay is a modest attempt to appropriately re-cast, in honest terms from which we can learn, the remembrance of one fallen veteran, and to invoke the honorable memory of countless fallen airmen represented in his story.  We’ll have to work very hard to deserve what they’ve given us.

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  • Bingo

    Tony,
    Nicely said. Mike deserves our reflection into both the way he lived and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his death. There is much to be learned from both. Thanks for writing this thoughtful post.
    To Mike and all our fallen on this Memorial Day:
    Here’s a toast…

  • Vapor

    Tony,

    Well done. The same could be said of the T-6 class A in Savannah. Aircrew (nor anyone) should be judged on one moment in their life.

  • Anonymous

    Tony,

    Best John Q Public post so far. He was a great IP and thought me how to operate the C-17 within the rules. He was great at looking things up that we were unsure of. Something led him to believe his behavior was acceptable.
    Thanks,
    Bhall

  • Reggae

    Mike was a patriot and warrior! Our nation is better for his service and devotion!

    • Tony Carr

      Thanks Reggae; his memory is made better by your honor. With more leaders like you, such lamentations would be less common.

  • Romo

    Tony,

    Mike not only ended his life, he ended four other crew member’s lives as well. That’s known as negligent homicide. And you left out a key point, this wasn’t the first time that crew had violated the air show demo, which they had violated multiple times the weeks prior, unfortunately this violation was caught on film. Mike may have done a lot for the C-17 community, however allowing four people to die, and destroying a perfectly good aircraft, is what he will always be known for outside the C-17 community. The only person I honestly feel sorry for is the Loadmaster, who probably didn’t know what horrible fate was coming until the last few seconds.

    This Memorial Day I would rather honor the crew of Shell 77, the KC-135 crew who died flying an OEF combat sortie and ultimately died supporting the Global War and terrorism, not max performing and aircraft to make an air show demonstration look “cooler” to the crowd.

    Your mileage my vary, sounds like it already does.

    – Romo

    • Tony Carr

      I’ve edited this response after realizing I let you pull me into negativity that is beneath the tone and purpose of this article. I’m less interested in focusing on the blame — which lies squarely but not solely with Mike, and for which he already paid the ultimate price — and more interested in (a) what we can learn from the accident and (b) the recognition that it could have been (and still could be) anyone. I’m also interested in ensuring history doesn’t remember him solely for the manner of his death. He was much more than that. You can honor whoever you like. Today, I’m honoring Major Freyholtz, and I do so unapologetically.

      • Romo
      • http://gravatar.com/c17jacko Jacko

        Romo,

        Throwing the Safety Report and a smart ass comment only demonstrates the stupidity that surrounds peoples obscured perspective of Mike!
        It is clear you mourn the lose of the crew and it appears you have some deep tie with one of them. For that, I am sorry you lost a friend! What you fail to see is Tony and those of us that knew Mike also lost a friend. Unfortunately, I am afraid you are letting your feelings cloud your ability to see Tony’s real meaning in this article.
        What I personally want to tell you is those of us that knew Mike best are more pissed and angry at Mike than you ever could be. We are his friends, Squadron mates, and Instructors that helped shape him. The fact that WE missed the signs that he was capable of such actions leaves us angry at ourselves. We have never, nor will we ever excuse his blatant disregard for the rules that ultimately led to his and his crews death. But, this does not, nor will it ever, change our feelings about him as a friend, father, and fellow airman.

        -Jacko

  • Stain

    A toast . .

    Stain

  • http://gravatar.com/c17jacko Jacko

    Tony,

    Thank you for another thought provoking article. As with every accident there are multiple layers to the story. Unfortunately, many of the layers are never analyzed completely. You did a great job telling Mike’s layer; from his background many today don’t know or want to know, to his fatal mistake that cost him and his fellow crew members their lives. I am sure he appreciates your words, I know I do.

    Mike was a personal friend and I often find myself telling today’s generation of pilots of his other side. As I talk about him, I never forgive his final actions. Instead, I remind each that one day that one day they might be “that guy” or they might know “that guy”. If Mike could get to that point and find it inside to push the aircraft to that level then anyone could. I tell them, they must try to recognize they symptoms and stop/step in before they get to far.

    Here’s a toast to all our fallen heroes this Memorial Day Weekend!

    – Jacko

    • Tony Carr

      I have grown fatigued of the shorthand when it comes to Mike. I’ve heard people who never met him and are half the pilot and officer he was opining about this accident and denigrating his memory … makes me realize how little understood it really is.

      There, but for the grace of God, go I … and many many others. He was a humble and amazing man whose fallibility was evident to the world. He was not just that, but much more. History cannot inform us if it obscures that which does not conform to its desired narrative.

      Glad, Jacko, that Mike’s ghost continues to haunt how you lead. That matters.

  • http://www.PickYourBattles.Net Pick Your Battles

    Tony, thought provoking post as usual.

    • Tony Carr

      Cheers, RR. Hope all is well with you. Be nice.

  • Jared Wood

    Remembering a lost Pathfinder today. Thanks dude. I hope to meet Romo someday. Got a present for ya.

    • Tony Carr

      My sentiments exactly. Abide, dude.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing this article!! It really is a shame that Mike will forever be remembered as the cause for this tragic accident. I am glad that I’m not the only one out there that remembers his love for making a positive difference in the C-17 community in regards to safety. He was constantly trying to think of ways to improve safety while flying. Ironic that is how he was killed. I remind our children daily that sometimes a bad day at work can be fatal and to error is human. All I can hope is that another tragic accident like this will never occur again. Please everyone fly safe!!!

    • Tony Carr

      It’s fair for some to lay this accident at Mike’s doorstep, but it’s an incomplete response. If we’re to learn anything, we have to get past the blame and process what happened and why. Glad this resonated with you. Yes, everyone needs to guard against safety compromise as they operate complex aircraft in tough environments for our country.

  • Bruce Cohn

    Exceedingly well written, with keen perspective. Intent is important and in that respect it is only fair that Mike be judged not only for his mistakes but also his contributions. To my fellow aviators – Let us be slow to cast off our brethren and be quick to learn from them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.buckingham72 Bill Buckingham

    Tony, this is a stunning and fitting tribute to our friend and brother Mike. Thank you for taking the time to carefully reflect on the nature of his character, talent, and the conditions that contributed to his situational awareness. This could have been anyone of us, but rather than mourn his loss and that of our fellow teammates, we remember their outstanding contributions to these United States. Thank you as well for your service, for honoring our fallen on Memorial Day. ~ Buck

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for telling the typically untold story of a fellow aviator in our line of duty. As a C-17 Instructor Pilot who has attached the Freyholtz name to a mission or two in the stage I feel a part of his life in some small way…that day in july could have easily been frmy life, I ponder that often. Could happen to the best of us and indeed did, McFly out.

  • Josh Q

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am also deeply frustrated by the narrative that has developed. Yes… He messed up. Yes, it is unforgivable. But he paid with his life. We need to learn from that, not sneer at it and move on. What I learned is that someone who is twice the pilot and officer I’ll ever be made a mistake and it cost him and his crew their lives. When I brief a crew now, I order them to call me out when they see a mistake, error, or broken regulation. That’s the wingman culture you so perfectly describe. I’m thankful to have known Mike… Along with Jeff, Aaron, and Tom. Their loss hurts. It always will. But my life is better for having known them, and our country is better for having had them in its service. God bless them, their families, and this country. And thank you for honoring him openly. You’re right. His one great mistake does not… CAN NOT define his entire life.

  • http://gravatar.com/jojo613 jojo613

    I knew Mike when I was a cadet in AFROTC. Mike was one of the nicest most talented airmen in our tiny ROTC unit. To this day, I find his death hard to believe, because of the way he operated when we were in college. Thank-you for writing this about his career as an airman. My spouse is now a B-52 crew member, and Mike WAS in NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM like Col Holland.

  • Kim Freyholtz

    Thanks for writing this article!! I just learned so much about Mike’s contributions to the C-17 community. Often times I feel like so many people overlook all the great things he did, and now I have written proof of what those accomplishment were! As the mother of his kids, I dread the day the kids start to ask about about what role Mike played in causing this tragic accident. Mike lived, breathed, and unfortunately died for his love of the C-17. He loved being on the air-show crews! Yes Mike was given too much leeway with the plane, but it’s because he was a damn good pilot that no one questioned him. Those of us that knew Mike are forever asking ourselves how could Mike of died in a plane crash of all things?!? Mike should be remembered because he was truly an amazing person who lived life the fullest.

    • Anonymous

      Thats great that he was a good person. But really, “a damn good pilot”? He crashed a plane at his own hands, not an emergency, not any other factor whatsoever, than one hand on the stick and one hand on the throttle. That sounds more like a shitty pilot than anything.

      • Bingo

        “Anonymous,”
        1) Read Kim’s comments in context. From the published reports as well as numerous statements by those who flew with Mike (myself included), her statement is completely accurate.
        2) Any logical argument you might try to make with your feeble comment is lost in your classless attack on the mother of Mike’s kids. Go find another post to attack and pick your fight there.

      • Tony Carr

        Did it make you feel better to besmirch him with that choice of words? It’s not just that I resent you failing to find a more constructive way to make your point and ask your question . . . it’s that you obviously didn’t read (or maybe didn’t understand) the article and don’t know the first damn thing about flying if you really believe what you wrote. You seem to be one of those sorts of standard mk1 jackasses who can’t disagree with someone without denigrating them. If that’s the case, you can pack your shit and leave this thread permanently. If it’s not the case, you might want to apologize and rephrase.

      • Geez

        Wow…whether or not you are right, do you REALLY think that calling out his WIDOW is appropriate?!

  • Anonymous

    Very well said. We should all be so blessed as to have a friend who understands and is willing to so eloquently explain that we were exceptional yet human. Thank you for your insight.

  • Rich Klarich

    Hell of a well-written memorial. I was hoping to read this point of view one day from someone. Well done.

  • Mitch Alley

    Excellent article. As a C-17 “baby” since 2001, I understand a lot about what was said and appreciate the perspective. I think about this crew a lot.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for giving us an inside look at Mike’s career and dedication. Thank you for taking the time to tell the whole story. We pray for peace and healing and restoration for each family of the crew. May God bless you and all who give of themselves to keep our country safe and free.
    Susan Freyholtz Rock

  • Jefe

    I will never forget that day. Mike taught me to air refuel and I was in awe of his talent and work ethic. For the record, inputs to their performance were made by some levels of leadership. However, much too much of the blame is laid at his feet. One only need see the correction to the total numbers of C-17 demo teams greatly reduced and amount of accountability for demo crews greatly increased as a result of this mishap. Many other wings were flying in similar ways though not as aggressively. At the time it felt like the rest of the line took one step back while Elmendorf was the one left standing. I won’t forget those I knew and I will never fly the same after that day. Thanks for the article TC.

  • STRAY

    Thanks for writing this. When instructors explain this accident to future aircrew members, I hope they incorporate some of the knowledge you just imparted on us. Pathfinders will never forget Mike!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Anonymous

    This culture of “leaning forward” really has no relevance to Mike’s death (and the death of three other crew members). Mike did not “lean forward” to disregard the rules and put the moose in an accelerated stall. This is a blatant disregard for rules, and those who have recreated this scenario in the sim have been completely blown away at how reckless he flew that day. Sure, he may have been a good officer back in the day, but so were the other two on board, and a respectable SNCO loadmaster as well.

    • Tony Carr

      All I can say in response is that I knew the man and the community in which operated. I knew both very well. And knowing them as I did, I disagree with you. The C-17 community has wrecked a dozen airplanes since 9/11, all of which should have killed the entire crew (though fortunately only this one did), and all have basically been blamed on the crew despite commanders telling the Air Force repeatedly that there are problems with how the community is training, developing, and leading its pilots.

      • Anonymous

        Okay Tony, please enlighten me on the accidents which “should have killed the crew”. As a C-17 crew member, i’m fully aware of Shank, Bagram, mech mode takeoffs, wrong airport landings, and unfortunate missile hits (completely outside of crew control), so fill me in where I am lacking. For such a redundant and computerized aircraft, why are pilots making basic mistakes?

        • Tony Carr

          In addition to what you’ve highlighted, there was a short landing at Kandahar in ’01, a hard landing at Shamzi in ’02, a landing without clearance that almost hit a street sweeper at Bagram in ’02, a landing that went into the infield at Bagram in ’04 or ’05, and of course the 4-engine flameout incident a few years ago. These are just the ones I can recite off the top of my head. There are many more. I’m not going to argue with you on the missile hit in this forum, except to say that whether or not an aircraft is hit by a missile is *sometimes* within crew control, and how the crew responds is *always* within its control.

          The story of why pilots are making basic mistakes is a story about how we train them. We were doing it right. Then we started doing it wrong. Now we’re doing it way wrong. That’s unfairly short, but it’s all I have time for at the moment. There are a few key decisions that were made to change the training model. Basic aircrew mistakes are the result. The aircraft has saved our bacon over and over, allowing risk to remain hidden.

          • S.M.
          • JANE HOE

            so because he killed himself and four people, it becomes a training issue? Did his training not imply that a low speed and excessive bank angle is a dangerous situation? I love this blog, but this article is a denial that Mike is solely to blame for this accident. Where is the training aspect lacking and what can be done to prevent this again? I love the C-17 and have enjoyed flying on it, but this refusal to accept personal responsibility is annoying AF. I will say, the direct-left-seat program is utter bullshit, but what exactly in the training methodology is so f*cked up that it leads to this sort of accident?

  • Anonymous

    i was a maintainer there during the time and had flown several times with the load master which happened to be on that mission. the mission preciously he had expressed consersns about being assigned to the airshow demo team. although it is unfortunate the fait of all the men aboard sitka 43, i do feel it unfair that due to one pilots ego, himself and 3 others had to parish. not to mention the fact that all maintainers were had to go in for drug testing, regardless if they had work on the jet or not. The AC also did have a reputation as you mention and maybe the crew is at fault for flying with him but it hurts to fly with a crew 6 days pryer and the loadmaster voice his concern and the rest of the crew agree and then find out later, several days after the crash from crash recovery, that his body was found in the T-tail in the chai. its sad that his body was the last to be found after all the others and days after Elmondorf had conducted a ceremony for all of them and the fact that after it had happened the families of the air crew had been denied entry to the base and reprimanded at the gates. as maintainers we knew who was on the jet and air craft forms and crew manifests proved that but the families were flagged and stop at gates and denied entry. the pilot made a major error and the base commander made a error by denying their access. A tragic incident that occurred by ego

  • Anonymous

    There is a difference…a huge difference, between airmanship and officership. I have a feeling the tone of this article and the resulting comments would be much different if the mishap pilot, due to his dismissal of AFIs and known Demo profile rules, had impacted not in a unpopulated area, but an apartment complex, a school gym where evening sport events where being held, or a grocery store. Yes, that didn’t happen, thank god. But we should not excuse an obvious disregard for rules and TTPs just because someone was a good “officer” or a good pilot.

    While many may disagree, an analogy to this tragedy is an individual, who has demonstrated solid decision making in the past, gets behind the wheel of a vehicle after a night of drinking and crashes…resulting in the death of himself and the three passengers in the vehicle. It doesn’t matter at this point what the driver did in the past, how well he led, how well he instructed, how well he drove the car in the past. What matters is that four individuals are dead. All because the individual driving/flying felt they were above the established rules.

    With that said, no person should be relegated in their remembrance to the last act they directed while on earth (or in the air). Mike should be remembered for all the good things that many have stated on this board. However, we should not fairy dust over the final act Mike took, regardless of how painful it might be for those close to him. An Aircraft Commander has ultimate say in the conduct and operation of his aircraft, as he/she should. And when they make decisions that result in harm to others, especially decisions that are counter to well established and documented procedures, we should not rush to “White Knight” them.

    Ignorance of the rules does not often let one skate in the legal system…obvious disregard for rules should not either, regardless of how well liked the individual was. God speed to those this touched.

  • Anonymous

    If they had an strong enlisted crew member (FE) in the cockpit, this crash probably wouldn’t have happened, because an enlisted guy up front a lot of times is the voice of reason. But unfortunately, they want to take the enlisted guys out of the cockpit and put us in the back to ” Shut up and color”.

  • Peter Hoffmann

    Flying is not a priority in today’s AF! Whenever there is an accident/incident it is both easy and convenient to just blame “pilot error”.

    This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes…

    “Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind. He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That his judgment was faulty is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every instructor, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose.”

    • Karol Malone

      Mr Carr,
      I can appreciate how much respect and admiration you have for Mike.
      I know this is the case for many.
      I am in the minority. Mike could have been the best pilot in the world but the facts are that 3 other men died at his hand.
      One of them, Maj. Aaron Malone, was my only son.
      I read your article for the first time today. It is now over 4 years since the crash. I have had many sleepless nights to ponder how such horror became my reality.
      I agree that Mike was unsupervised. I blame the Air Guard for the lack of oversight to his teaching methods. Not once has any one from the Guard or the Govenors office, or any other governing body apoligized for the lack of supervision that ultimately cost 3 others their lives.
      Of course that admission would be an admission of guilt.
      Not so surprising.
      I for one, will never ever forgive Mike. His apparent (bullet proof) mentality lost me my son forever.
      I don’t know what Mike was thinking that day but his decision making was so flawed he flew that plane right into the ground.
      Granted there were two other pilots onboard but let’s not forget the Alaska Air Guard allowed Mike to function and train all these pilots with full autonomy. If Mike said something worked, why would they question him?
      I read the full investigation, all 1400 pages. In this document repeated examples of Mike’s blatant disregard for the rules were cited.
      The plane crashed less than a minute after take off. There was virually no time to assess the situation, assess what Mike was doing to correct the problem and then to object or intervene.
      I won’t say that there wasn’t some level of responsibility on Aaron and Jeff’s part but the ultimate responsibility was Mike’s. Mike was their leader and trainer.
      In that one minute from take off, Mike managed to leave 3 happily married women widows, leave 7 children fatherless, leave 8 parents childless and sap every drop of joy out of my life forever.
      In the last four years there have barely been 30 days that I haven’t cried. I never dreamed in my life, that I would know such heartache and despair.
      In the investigative report a point that was made that I will never forget is that as the plane was heading towards the ground, Mike never made any move to correct. He stayed at full throttle until it crashed.
      I can’t and I won’t ever forgive this. That one act negated every good thing Mike may have done in his life.
      He allowed his ego to kill my son, 2 others and himself.
      It is a shame that his lifetime of good was negated by bad judgement but this bad judgement was not a one time thing. He repeatedly broke the rules and flew the C-17 in ways it was not designed to be flown. There were multiple testimonials of airmen who knew he was not following the guidelines.
      This was not a one time error in judgement.
      I could go on and on but suffice it to say Mike lost his shiny all american boy glow when he killed 3 innocent people.
      I can never forgive that.
      Karol Malone,
      Mother of Major Aaron Malone, Sitka 43