“Heartbreaking” and “Preventable.” That’s how the mother of an Army helicopter pilot describes the midair crash that killed her son and three others last December. It happened during a nighttime training exercise at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord. A report released this week finds that commanders knew about radar and radio limitations in the training area where the crash happened. But apparently those communication gaps went unresolved – despite other near misses.
Among the four Army aviators killed: Chief Warrant Officer Frank Buoniconti. He was 36-years old, a highly decorated Army pilot who’d served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly five months after the accident his mother, Silvia Buoniconti of Colorado Springs tries to put her grief into words.
“I can scream and cry and complain and I can’t fix it. And it’s horrible. It’s the finality. I will not see him again,” Buoniconti says.
Buoniconti has not yet read the 282-page crash report or been formally briefed by the Army. But she’s read the news accounts. She knows the investigator has concluded that the helicopter her son was flying with Capt. Anne Montgomery was broadsided. The report faults the pilot in command of that other chopper. But Silvia Buoniconti says she doesn’t blame him.
“Accidents do happen, it’s horrific and this pilot paid dearly, he paid with his life as well. So the slate is clean at that,” Buoniconti says.
Instead, Buoniconti is angry about something else contained in the report. That there had been other near misses that went unreported. That radio and radar communications in the rural training area where the crash happened were unreliable. That these communication shortcomings had been brought to the attention of the base’s Aviation Safety and Standardization Council a year earlier. That these concerns had even reached Colonel Thomas Brittain, the joint base commander at Lewis-McChord. Yet the crash report comes to this conclusion, quote, “the issue was not carried forward or resolved.”
“If you’re aware that a problem exists and you don’t do anything about it you can fill in any word you want but that’s absolutely wrong and not right,” Buoniconti says.
“When you get a report like that you expect someone to be following up on it,” says Ren Hart. He is a retired Army helicopter pilot who now works as a private aircraft accident investigator and consultant. He says training safety improvements are the kind of thing that can fall through the cracks in a wartime Army.
“There are ways to avoid this sort of a thing in the future. And it takes I guess an accident to get the attention where those changes are made that will improve the system,” Hart says.
Officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord would not discuss the newly released report because a second, formal accident investigation is still ongoing. But in a statement the Army Post says: “JBLM's communications architecture and airspace management meet published standards ... Nonetheless, we are never satisfied with the status quo when it comes to safety and training.” Like all the pilots killed that night, Chief Warrant Officer Frank Buoniconti left behind family. His mother says his youngest child – a three-and-a-half year old - still pretends to call his daddy on his play phone.
“‘Oh hi Daddy, I heard your helicopter crashed. Okay I’ll see you soon.’ Hangs up the phone and says: ‘mommy, daddy be home in ten minutes.’ I mean your heart stops,” Buoniconti says.
Buoniconti says if her son had been killed in combat that would have been hard, but something she could rationalize. With an accident like this, she says, you just have questions.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network