OTTAWA Pilots from the U.S. fighter squadron that mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan had told their commanders shortly before the fatal accident that they were exhausted and needed more rest between missions.
The informal meeting between pilots of the 183rd Fighter Wing and their commanding officers was convened after the unit misidentified a bombing target during a previous mission over Iraq. The 183rd, an Air National Guard unit currently stationed in Kuwait, was flying patrol missions in the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq as well as sorties over Afghanistan.
In the meeting, held in the week before Canadian soldiers were shelled by American bombs in Afghanistan, at least one F-16 pilot complained that requirements for crew rest were not being observed and that many of the pilots were overtired. The pilot was told, however, that further questions about crew rest would not be looked on favourably by the wing command.
Instead, pilots were advised to speak to a flight surgeon about so-called "go/no pills" amphetamines used to help stay awake on long missions, and sedatives to help sleep.
Then, on April 17, a fighter from the 183rd flying a patrol mission accidentally bombed Canadian troops conducting a live-fire exercise south of Kandahar. Four soldiers from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were killed and eight injured.
Pilots are supposed to get 12 hours of rest between missions, but that can be changed when the unit is in a state of alert. The 183rd has been flying missions in the no-fly zone since March. Although U.S. air force rules allow flight surgeons to prescribe dextro-amphetamine (dexe-drine), the drug is supposed to be used for long transoceanic transport flights, not combat missions.
"If they can't work around the scheduling, and people have to work extended hours, then dextro-amphetamine is approved," said Betty-Anne Mauger, a public affairs officer with the U.S. air force surgeon general.
The flight over Afghanistan that led to the bombing may have taken as long as 10 hours, not including the three to eight hours of briefings that are standard before combat missions. Most of the pilots in the 183rd Fighter Wing are part-time members who also work as commercial airline pilots.
Because of the strict requirements of civil aviation, they are acutely aware of the importance of proper crew rest. Commercial pilots are not allowed to use amphetamines.
The Canadian and U.S. military have convened their own boards of inquiry to find out why the F-16 dropped a laser guided-bomb on the Canadians. Canada's board, led by retired General Maurice Baril, said in a preliminary report last month that Canadian troops did nothing to provoke the incident.
It is still unclear whether Baril's board will be able to interview the F-16 pilot, whose identity has not been publicly disclosed.
The exact date of the 183rd's failed bombing mission in Iraq is not known, but U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, confirmed that U.S. fighters dropped bombs in the Southern no-fly zone just two days before the Canadians soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.
On the morning of April 15, two U.S. F-16s flying over Thi-Qar province used laser-guided bombs to attack a radar installation after it locked onto the aircraft. CENTCOM did not say if the attack was successful, and there is no indication that Iraqi civilians or military personnel were killed or injured.
It was the first bombing of ground targets in Iraq since January, according to CENTCOM.
The Iraq News Agency reported that "civil and service installations" were attacked by U.S. fighters flying from Kuwait that day. Iraqi officials said that the coalition forces had flown 37 sorties in the southern no-fly zone the morning of the bombing.
Citing security concerns, CENTCOM will not say which U.S. unit was involved in the Iraqi incident, nor will it confirm any subsequent meeting between pilots and commanders in the 183rd Fighter Wing.
There is no evidence that the pilots involved in either bombing had taken any of the stimulants offered. But the use of amphetamines was common among American fighter pilots in the Gulf War, according to journalist Rick Atkinson, author of Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War.
"There was concern in some squadrons that the pilots were becoming psychologically, if not physically, addicted to the pills," he told PBS's Frontline last year.
Atkinson estimates two-thirds of all pilots in Desert Storm used dexedrine at least once. "Some commanders became concerned enough to ban the flight surgeons from issuing further 'go' pills. It became remarkably divisive within some squadrons."www.canada.com/components/printstory/printstory.asp?id=333872FC-939F-48B2-B7B7-FE-mail this article