Drinking Culture, 'Unsafe Supervision' Blamed in Laughlin Firings

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 A recent report by the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command revealed leadership gaps in a high-pressure, high-tempo training environment, leading to unsafe practices that included alcohol consumption. (US Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
A recent report by the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command revealed leadership gaps in a high-pressure, high-tempo training environment, leading to unsafe practices that included alcohol consumption. (US Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

"Unsafe" supervision, alcohol consumption and the pressure to train pilots quickly all contributed to alleged officer misconduct within the 47th Flying Training Wing that ended with three commanders at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, being fired earlier this year, according to an investigation report.

The Air Force's Air Education and Training Command on Friday released a heavily redacted 27-page command-directed investigation into the wing's leadership culture. The report indicated that there were leadership gaps in a high-pressure, high-tempo training environment, leading to unsafe practices that included alcohol consumption.

As a result, three commanders at one of the Air Force's lead pilot training wings were relieved of command Oct. 31.

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), relieved Col. Charles Velino, commander of the 47th Flying Training Wing, along with the operations group commander and the flying training squadron commander. While not named in the announcement, Col. Robert Pekarek had assumed command of the 47th Operations Group at Laughlin in June 2017, according to an Air Force release. The service confirmed he was also relieved of command.

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"In a resource- and time-constrained Air Force with an increased operations tempo, there were many bright spots within [the 19th Air Force] that indicate leaders are promoting Air Force core values and promulgating ideals that embody dignity and respect," the report states. "However, small pockets of incivility still exist and, if left unchecked or uncorrected, could grow into a toxic training culture."

Officials visited bases across the 19th Air Force, which oversees training of aircrews and other specialties, interviewing hundreds of enlisted airmen and many officers involved in the Undergraduate Pilot Training program. They learned about lack of supervision, unwanted advances, hazing and drinking, among other problems, the report states.

"The investigation examined flying training at the 47 FTW to establish the causal chain associated with recent officer misconduct that gave rise to lapses in good order and discipline," it said of the problems at Laughlin. "The root cause of the officer misconduct was leadership improperly assessing the environment and missing opportunities to establish a culture of dignity and respect."

Alcohol was a key catalyst, according to the report.

"Most felt officers drank more than enlisted personnel and characterized student pilots as frat boys. Perceptions existed that officers got away with misconduct associated with alcohol overindulgence," investigators wrote of the 47th.

"The consumption of alcohol in association with training milestones appeared to glamorize the overindulgence of alcohol, and this was most notable at Laughlin AFB," the report states. "Unsafe supervision occurred when leaders did not apply non-punitive actions to prevent further escalation of alcohol-related incidences and rehabilitate our airmen."

In May, officials opened two successive investigations into allegations of gender discrimination and harassment.

"The allegations included gender discrimination towards female student pilots and a hostile work environment," the report states, without citing the specific incidents.

In November, AETC officials confirmed that a female airman was given an inappropriate call sign by fellow airmen during a drinking event in what constituted a hostile and dangerous environment at the pilot training wing.

News of the slur against a female pilot surfaced when Kwast told the San Antonio Express-News following the commander firings that a vulgar name was used as the female airman's call sign, the traditional nickname given to pilots.

While the female airman said she did not feel threatened and didn't feel that the name given to her was a "big deal," Air Force officials knew it was unacceptable, Kwast said.

"We all know it is," he told the Express-News. "And she may have said that she didn't feel like it was a big deal because she felt like her future assignment might be at risk because the people that have power over her were naming her."

The incident reportedly happened during a drinking event at which airmen were doing shots.

"The call sign incident was an unrelated event that was uncovered during the investigation," command spokeswoman Jennifer Gonzalez told Military.com on Nov. 7.

The 47th Flying Training Wing is a major unit that oversees T-1A Jayhawk, T-6A Texan II and T-38C Talon pilot training under the 19th Air Force, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

At the time of the reported problems, a significant portion of the chain-of-command was on temporary duty elsewhere, which caused distress within the wing.

"The lack of wing command presence at home station did not allow the wing commander to clearly set expectations, learn about the challenges and opportunities in the 47 FTW by establishing relationships with the leadership team, or develop an understanding of the culture at the 47 FTW," the report states.

Still, misbehavior went overlooked by officials who were in charge.

"On multiple occasions, leadership in the 47 FTW inappropriately abdicated authority," according to the report. "The abdication was both a lack of awareness when leaders should act and a misunderstanding of authorities and delegation of authorities."

Even under difficult circumstances, there were still opportunities for leaders to have stepped in, according to the report.

"The command's emphasis on pilot production ... hindered leadership's ability to capitalize on critical opportunities to mentor at the wing, group, and squadron levels," it said.

"Leaders who train our next generation of airmen must ensure that the training environment is infused with a culture of dignity and respect that promotes an atmosphere of learning and coaching," officials said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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