Human error likely caused the January crash of a refueling plane over Pakistan that killed seven Marines, according to a military report released Wednesday.
Investigators found the KC-130 flight crew likely became disoriented while approaching an airfield at night in southwestern Pakistan, where their plane slammed into a mountainside.
"The most likely cause of this mishap was that the aircrew ... flew too far away from the field at too low an altitude," according to the Marine Corps review.
The San Diego-based squadron's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Carl Parker, said the finding of human error was "a bitter pill" and that there was disbelief and anger among some family members of the victims.
"They were good friends to all of us," Parker said. "Their reputations, every last one of them" were stellar.
No 'pilot error'
The co-pilot was Capt. Daniel McCollum, son-in-law of Bill and Jenny Harkey of Cape Girardeau. McCollum's widow, Jennifer, and her mother attended the press conference for the report Wednesday.
In a phone interview Wednesday evening, Jenny Harkey said the report never used the term "pilot error" but instead attributed the crash to a combination of factors, including lighting, terrain and the requirements placed on the crew.
The experienced crew had only the airfield lights to guide them on Jan. 9 as they approached Bardari airfield in the Pakistan village of Shamsi.
The plane, attempting to land at night in good weather conditions, was redirected to a different approach because the military wanted to reduce jet noise and helicopters were parked too close to the landing strip. Witnesses said they saw the plane circle twice before it crashed and exploded.
Harkey said the crew had landed at the airfield previously using the other airstrip. She said the decision to use the alternate airstrip was the pilot's to make because the plane was flying in combat conditions.
She said the crew was attempting a landing and showed no sign anything was wrong. McCollum's voice was the last one heard on the recorded radio transmissions, and he was thanking the control tower for some information.
Col. Randolph Alles, commanding officer of the Marine unit that includes the KC-130 squadron, said it's possible the crew were attempting a visual landing without night-vision equipment, but authorities aren't sure.
There was no moonlight and the crew had only the lights along the airstrip to guide them, according to investigators.
"They thought they were clear of the terrain," Alles said at a news conference Wednesday. "There was obviously a mistake in a high-demand environment."
Since the crash, the Marine Corps has retrofitted three KC-130s and is working on 10 more to improve the planes' night-landing capabilities. The report recommended upgrading the navigation system.
While both modifications would have helped the crew, "neither would have necessarily prevented the mishap," the report concluded.
Before the JAG report was released, other pilots had told Jennifer McCollum to expect such a finding. They told her that 80 percent of the time reports attribute crashes to human error.
Pakistan had agreed in October to allow U.S. forces to use the base, located 50 miles from the Afghanistan border, as a forward staging area.
The crew of seven from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego provided supply and aerial refueling support to the war effort.
The victims included Sgt. Jeannette Winters, 25, of Gary, Ind., the first female military casualty in the Afghanistan campaign.
Also killed were Capt. Matthew Bancroft of Redding, Calif.; Gunnery Sgt. Stephen Bryson of Montgomery, Ala.; Lance Cpl. Bryan Bertrand of Coos Bay, Ore.; Staff Sgt. Scott Germosen of New York; and Sgt. Nathan Hays of Wilbur, Wash.