Air Force officials waived airmen's in-person vehicle training requirements during the global pandemic, something investigators noted in a comprehensive review of a vehicle rollover accident in the Middle East that killed a 26-year-old senior airman.
Senior Airman Jason Khai Phan, from the 66th Security Forces Squadron at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., died after being ejected from an all-terrain vehicle while on a routine perimeter sweep of Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait in September, an Air Force ground investigation board report found.
Phan and two other airmen were on a 12-hour night patrol in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle outside the fenced perimeter and were not wearing their seat belts or helmets when the accident occurred, the board report, released Monday, states. They were assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron.
Only the driver's door may have been "combat-locked," which offers additional protection to lock doors from the inside, the report found.
On Sept. 12, 2020, Phan, who had been promoted to senior airman a month earlier, was accompanying the truck commander, identified only as a female senior airman, and the driver, identified as a female staff sergeant.
All three airmen had completed local training and certification on how to operate the M-ATV. However, due to COVID-19 stop-movement orders and other restrictions, the in-person Tactical Vehicle Course requirement was waived for many Security Forces personnel deploying to the Middle East, the report states. According to their records, Phan and the two other airmen completed only the "Phase One" local welcome training given to newcomers within the first few days of arriving at the base.
Toward the end of their shift outside the perimeter, in an area known as "Viperland," the driver felt the vehicle begin to pull to the right "as the right wheels appeared to be getting stuck in the sand," according to a release accompanying the report. The driver said she thought the brakes were malfunctioning. The report said the vehicle was traveling at at least 43 miles per hour -- more than double the vehicle approved speed limit -- when it began to veer to the right.
Citing what she learned during training, the driver said she continued to press down on the gas pedal, steering the vehicle in a serpentine pattern for roughly 200 yards, but ultimately lost control.
The ATV rolled over completely once, before coming to rest on the driver's side. During the rollover, the back door behind the driver opened, ejecting Phan and shearing the door off its hinges. The combat lock was not in place on Phan's door.
The two other Security Forces airmen in the vehicle were injured and experienced traumatic brain injuries, per the report. They were taken to the Camp Arifjan Army regional medical facility and later released.
The M-ATV had passed all its inspections; the team that had used the vehicle prior to handing it off for the night patrol did not indicate any issues with it.
The emergency response was delayed after the accident, according to the report. The truck commander had to use her cell phone to call for assistance because the airmen were unable to locate their mobile radios. When emergency responders were contacted, the operator was unfamiliar with a term used to identify the ATV's location. Responding Security Forces members administered aid until emergency crews got to the site, the report states.
"It is a tragedy anytime we lose an Airman, and this accident highlights the dangers our members who serve face daily in the defense of our nation," said Maj. Gen. Maureen Banavige, president of the Ground Accident Investigation Board, in the release.
The Air Force’s report comes amid a sweeping Army- and Marine Corps-wide investigation into vehicle training deaths. The probe was ordered by lawmakers following the death of 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell. McDowell, a 24-year-old Marine Corps platoon commander, was participating in a May 2019 training exercise at Camp Pendleton, California, when his light armored vehicle flipped in the tall grass terrain. Six other Marines were injured in the LAV accident.
Phan, from Anaheim, California, was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the Defense Department's campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to Hanscom officials, his work while deployed included helping with preliminary criminal investigations, supporting base security, rendering emergency first aid and other base support functions.
The Air Force operates alongside the Kuwaiti air force from the base, roughly 20 miles from the Iraqi border. Ali Al Salem functions as the primary airlift hub and "gateway for delivering combat power to joint and coalition forces," according to the service.
-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.