The new commander of the Marine Corps' western air bases, seeking to put to rest the scandal of the past four months, said Tuesday that Marine aviators do adhere to restrictions on the personal use of aircraft but need to be "more sensitive to perceptions" of wrongdoing.
"Marine Corps policy is adequate the way it stands. I think the base directives are adequate," said Brig. Gen. Harold W. Blot. But "people have to be more sensitive to perception--it's not that anyone did anything wrong."
Speaking out for the first time since taking over at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro on Friday, Blot addressed the controversy that has seen the El Toro base general and two colonels removed from office because of questions surrounding their use of base aircraft for personal trips.
Blot replaced Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, who was removed from his El Toro post and reassigned to Quantico, Va., amid an investigation into his use of a base C-12 Beechcraft for possible personal trips.
In his interim position, Blot now heads the Marine air bases at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz.
The military's investigation was prompted by a report in The Times last month that Adams had taken at least five flights that raised questions about his mix of personal and business travel, even as he was disciplining two of his top aides over that same issue.
One of the aides, Col. James E. Sabow, killed himself in January, five days after he was suspended by Adams for alleged misuse of the Beechcraft. Col. Joseph E. Underwood, the former chief of staff at El Toro, was also removed by Adams amid similar allegations and later barred from the base.
Blot, 52, sought to downplay the controversy over base plane use, saying, "This is not a significant event outside the lives of a few people who are affected by it."
"We're putting this behind us and trying to run the base as professionally as we can. . . . I would like to put away all the old, 'hey, this happened here and that happened there and all this went on.' It's taken care of; it's done. . . .
"I'm coming in with a fresh slate," Blot said. "I had nothing to do with what happened before, and we have nothing to do with wrapping anything up now."
As Blot noted, the Marine Corps inspector general's office in Washington is continuing its investigation of Adams to determine whether any action--it could range from clearing the general of wrongdoing to fines, forced retirement or a court-martial--may be in order.
Blot was assistant commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, based at El Toro, during the time of most of the flights in question by Adams and the two colonels he suspended; Adams and the two colonels all worked in base operations, which is generally run independently from the air wing.
Blot declined to speak directly to the allegations against Adams, such as the general's signing of his divorce decree in Florida or meeting his fiancee in Washington state during flights designed as training missions.
Without having looked at the cases himself, Blot said that interpretations of the general's flights could be either "slanted toward a perception of something wrong" or presented as "a normal way of business." He said he could not be sure which view was correct.
But he defended the principle of "cross-country" training missions in general for Marine fliers, calling them "a vital need" and "a morale factor."
The general acknowledged that military regulations over what flights are allowed can often be unclear. But he said he sees no need to set down new base policies in the wake of the scandal at El Toro.
Ultimately, Blot said, the question of whether a flight is legitimate is "a judgment call" on the part of an officer in the chain of command. "You try to use common sense."
Blot said he wants to preside over "the everyday missions" of the western air bases and their 4,600 civilian and military personnel, without setting longer-term objectives. "I'm not going around looking for problems."
Blot himself has an extensive background in flying.
He flew Marine fighter jets in Vietnam and later became a test pilot for the Navy. In 1967, he was selected to attend an aerospace training program at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and he later tested, evaluated and helped engineer the AV-8 Harrier, a revolutionary attack jet that can take off and land vertically.
Now up for promotion to a two-star general, Blot made no attempt to hide his desire to take over as commander of the 3rd Air Wing once the present commander, Maj. Gen. Royal N. Moore, moves on to another command. That decision, as well as a permanent commander at El Toro, could come any day out of Washington.
"I do want that to happen," he said.