A Series of Blunders and Poor Decisions Led to Charles Holbrook’s Death. Our Team Made Sure They Were Addressed.
Attorney Randi McGinn took the lead on a lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force after a 2017 training exercise resulted in the death of a contractor who had been invited to participate. A review of the incident uncovered multiple errors and warnings that contributed to the tragedy. Along with 2 members of the Air Force whose negligence directly led to the fatal shooting, our firm took on the organization itself as the ultimate liable party for the student and instructor’s mistakes.
Charles Holbrook, a retired Air Force Master Sgt., was hit in the head with a 20mm round by a student pilot who fired on the wrong target during the demonstration of a laser targeting system. He died less than 2 hours later. He left behind his wife of more than 20 years, Belen, and the couple’s young daughter, Alyssa.
McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry successfully represented Belen in a wrongful death suit against the Air Force and the 2 pilots deemed liable—one an instructor and one a student. The settlement, which is split evenly with one part going to Belen and the other to Alyssa, will ensure both are cared for. It is also our hope the multi-million dollar payment will encourage the Air Force to review its safety practices so no future tragedies of this sort affect innocent families.
“There Are No Accidents, Only Poor Planning.”
In our investigation of the case, we uncovered multiple omissions and missteps that led to the fatal shooting.
In late 2017, Mr. Holbrook was visiting New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base to demonstrate his company’s laser imaging device to members of the Dutch air force. The U.S. Air Force invited him to demonstrate the device during a nighttime training exercise while onsite and set up an exercise involving 2 student pilots, 2 instructor pilots, 2 army ground liaison officers, 4 joint terminal attack controllers (JTACS) from 2 different Air Force units, and 3 Dutch JTACS. The groups, which had never worked together, were not even given a joint briefing; members of the ground crew attended only a short meeting and were later taken by surprise by the way the training exercise progressed.
According to testimony from the instructor and student pilot not directly involved in the shooting, the exercise was more complex than most and the briefing did not make it clear the friendly forces involved would be real people, not simulations. Worse, the exercise was both students’ first practice in a nighttime live-fire situation and, for the student who fired the fatal shot, the first time he had used night-vision goggles while flying an F-16 and the first time he completed a high-angle strafe of unlit targets. It was also poorly constructed, with the ground crew standing in as friendly forces located less than a half-mile away from the target and in a similar formation—a line of rental cars in a dirt circle with a road leading away in one direction—that would appear nearly identical to the target to the students given the nighttime setting.
When the exercise began, the at-fault instructor pilot failed to note red flags that foretold the upcoming tragedy. While the friendly forces’ station was lit by an infrared warning strobe that would be visible with the students’ night-vision goggles, the student pilot who fired the fatal shot never confirmed a visual of it and his instructor did not ask him to sight it. When that student then confirmed a “capture target,” his instructor did not verify he had the correct target. If this step had been taken, either might have recognized the strobe for what it was or noticed the mismatch between the student’s target and the beacon on the targeting software.
Records from the exercise show the confusion was obvious. On what was to be his first strafing run, the student attempted to fire on the wrong target but discovered his master armament switch was in simulation mode. His instructor ordered him to switch to arm mode and re-engage. On the student’s second run, he did not shoot because he was not sure he had the right target. At this point, the instructor called to abort the student’s run, but the student re-set his targeting pod cursor and, after being pointed toward the correct target, was told to attack again. The JTACS were not aware of this exchange and were simply told the pilot was going to set up to re-attack, a command that should have been given by them rather than the instructing pilot.
Though at this point the student’s aircraft was pointing him on the correct flight path heading, and he read out this heading, the student steered his F-16 in the wrong direction, back toward the friendly forces on the ground, before opening fire. The JTACS were supposed to be in control of the mission, including ordering the students to fire, but the instructor pilot gave the fatal order.
Of the 155 rounds fired at the friendly forces’ position, one hit Charles Holbrook in the head. Additionally, the student pilot blew up a rental car and injured an airman. Mr. Holbrook’s death and the other damages could have easily been prevented if only any of the red flags that presented had been taken seriously.
How One Lawsuit Can Have a Lasting Impact
McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry fights cases that have the potential to bring systemic change. Previous suits filed by our lawyers have led to concessions from businesses and changes to laws and regulations. We are hopeful this case has sparked internal reviews within the Air Force to ensure no tragedy of this type happens again.
In our 35+ years in practice, our team has learned that, unfortunately, knowing what is right is not enough to change most people or organizations’ behavior. Pressure applied by public scrutiny and financial penalties is much more effective. Though no amount of money can bring back Mr. Holbrook, his family is thankful for the support they have received from members of the Air Force and JTAC community and hopeful their story will lead to better safety practices in future Air Force exercises.
Do you have a story of injustice to share? Call McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry at (505) 405-4441 for a free consultation.