The Times podcast: Our Masters of Disasters know it’s windy at the Pentagon. And they know exactly what to do when it happens in the middle of January.
John W. Rostek Jr. is a media writer at The Times. This story first appeared in the Nov. 14, 2013 issue of The Times Magazine. To receive it via email, sign up here.
A man looks up to see a small helicopter hovering in the sky. He has no idea what it is.
The airmen in the helo had only a fleeting sense of the situation they were in. They were in the midst of battle.
“We had to get the hell out of there,” is how an air force pilot, who asked to be identified only by his first name, David, describes the morning at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, where his unit was patrolling during the past three days. “The problem is, getting out of there is really the hard part. Because it looked like we’d lost.”
It was January 28, nearly a year to the day since a helicopter crash killed two airmen, five Navy SEALs and an Air Force sergeant during a training exercise at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, where the pilot was based. The pilot and all four airmen aboard were killed, and the helicopter was destroyed.
Two weeks after the accident, Defense Secretary Leon R. Panetta told The Times his agency would review the military’s procedures. At the time of the crash, a Defense Department official noted the pilot’s last command was to abort the exercise. But the official declined to answer questions about whether the pilot had authority to abort the exercise, citing ongoing agency investigations.
“One of the things I’ve been asked a lot about,” the pilot said, “is why we were there. That question was never given an answer.”
There has not been an official explanation as to why the airmen were killed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, or whether they should have been permitted outside in such weather conditions.
But as David described the morning, one answer came swiftly to mind.
“They should have waited until we were finished,” he said. As “we” were finishing, they should have known the weather was bad, he said.
“They were under