Air Force Settles $25 Million Lawsuit for F-16 Strafing Run That Killed Contractor

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off for a training sortie.
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off for a training sortie over the White Sands Missile Range's 10,000 square mile range at Holloman Air force Base, N.M., Aug. 5, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Leah Ferrante)

Editor’s Note: Randi McGinn, the family's lawyer, told on Friday that the family has settled for an undisclosed amount less than $25 million. "$25 million was the initial demand, but the case was never settled for what the demand was," McGinn said in a phone call, but would not disclose the new amount, citing family privacy. "They have enough to take care of them for the rest of their lives," she added. The article and headline have been updated to reflect this new reporting.

A district judge ruled this week ruled that the U.S. Air Force was responsible for the death of a U.S. contractor accidentally killed during a live-fire training exercise.

Charles Holbrook, a retired master sergeant and former Tactical Air Control Party airman, died Jan. 31, 2017, at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, after an F-16 Fighting Falcon student pilot incorrectly identified the target location during the nighttime training, instead shooting at Holbrook's location, according to court documents.

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Holbrook, who was working as a contractor for Sensors Unlimited, now a division of Raytheon Technologies, was killed when the student "mistook the line of rental cars for the similarly aligned target and was ordered to fire at the group, blowing up one of the rental cars and striking Holbrook in the head with a 20 mm round," the records show. The news was first reported by the Alamogordo Daily News.

Holbrook died several hours later at the hospital.

The exercise involved the student and an instructor pilot, both only identified as 'John Does' in the report. The training was meant to reenact a "close air support scenario where F-16 fighter jets would attack with live ammunition an enemy position when 'friendlies' were nearby," according to the documents.

In all, there were four jets in the air -- two instructors and two student pilots each in their own F-16 fighter. There were 10 people on the ground, some of them in training to direct air-support fire.

"These groups had never worked together before," the documents say.

The pilot going in for the attack was inexperienced in this type of training, the documents say. It was the student's "first night close air support mission, first use of night vision goggles while piloting the aircraft, and the first time he would be performing a nighttime high-angle strafe of unlit targets."

The ground crew was positioned at an observation post less than half a mile away from the intended training target, which was in "almost identical configuration as the target." The real target was a line of vehicles on a dirt circle.

Most of the people on the ground were Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who are qualified to identify targets and call for close-air support. Holbrook was invited to demonstrate a laser imaging device for three JTACS from the Dutch Air Force.

Roughly 30 minutes into the exercise, an instructor at the observation post set up a red strobing infrared beacon to distinguish the observation point from its surroundings. It would also allow the pilot to see a visual flash in his night-vision goggles.

However, the student pilot never indicated that he had located the strobe.

"This should have set off alarm bells for the [instructor pilot]" flying alongside the student, the records say. The instructor pilot "should have asked why the [student] did not announce that he saw the strobing ... or otherwise verified that the [student] saw and understood that the infrared strobe indicated the observation post."

Minutes later, the student called for a "capture target" despite never saying what he was targeting. Because of ongoing confusion, the instructor pilot called for an abort of the CAS run, saying the other student-instructor team should come in instead.

But the student reset his targeting pod cursor, which switched his tracker to the appropriate target, and was given the green light from his instructor.

The student called out his flight path heading, which would have placed him on the correct target. But instead, he ignored his targeting pod steering information and "actually flew a different heading that pointed him back to his original incorrect target," the court records say.

The pilot then squeezed the trigger to fire his 20mm Vulcan cannon toward the observation post.

In 2018, Holbrook's widow, Belen, originally brought a wrongful death suit for nearly $25 million against the U.S. Air Force, specifically naming the instructor and student pilots as defendants.

During a telephone hearing earlier this week, United States Magistrate Judge Stephan Vidmar of the U.S. District Court in New Mexico ruled in the family’s favor.

"The Defendant United States of America through the U.S. Air Force was responsible for the acts and omissions of their employees, agents, apparent agents and contractors, including Defendant John Does I and II, the JTAC personnel and those U.S. Air Force members responsible for training, supervising, directing and ensuring safety in the live fire nighttime run," the records state.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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