El Toro Scandals Prompt Crackdown on Plane Use
Back when J.K. Davis was starting out as a Marine Corps pilot at El Toro in the 1950s, the real fun began once the scheduled mission was over and the log books were out of sight.
“The fliers, they’d meet over at Lake Elsinore after their missions and have dogfights,” he recalls. “Anybody that was there would have at it--sort of an unprogrammed, air-to-air combat . . . in the old F-4U Corsairs.”
Davis, 64, now a retired four-star general living in San Clemente, pauses, remembering those days. “It used to be fun to fly airplanes,” he says. “It’s a hell of a lot of work now, and you have to watch what you’re doing.”
The days of the impromptu dogfights are gone with the old F-4U Corsairs. In today’s climate of scaled-back military budgets and heightened ethical sensitivities, the business of who flies where, and why, can send careers into nose dives, spark embarrassing investigations, and even lead to the suicide of a career officer.
Yet even so, interviews with more than two dozen former and current military pilots and investigators indicate that some aviators still consider the use of military aircraft for trips that may skirt regulations to be a perk of earning their wings. Allegations of abuse have even been leveled against commanding colonels, admirals and generals in recent years, in some cases leading the military to quietly reprimand top officers, documents obtained by The Times show.
In the wake of a series of scandals at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station this year involving three top officers, the issue has garnered the attention of military policy makers in Washington, who are reviewing some of the basic assumptions of plane use.
Already, Marine Corps officials have decided to undertake “a stepped-up inspection and oversight” reform that would demand greater accountability of why any particular mission is being undertaken, corps spokesman Lt. Col. James Vance said in Washington.
“There’s an acknowledgement by the Marine Corps here that even the perception of impropriety can’t be tolerated, and this is one of the ways we’re going to deal with it,” Vance said. “Yes, there have been abuses before--it is not the norm; in fact, it’s an aberration, but we’re going to do all we can to control it.”
“Appearances mean a lot and you have to sensitize people to that and make sure appearances are appropriate,” said Lt. Col. James Vance, a spokesman for the Marine Corps. “That’s something this review will take into account.”
Apparent violations of military regulations are less flagrant today than when Davis was flying. But pilots and aviation officials say that vacations are still often planned around cross-country training flights--taken ostensibly to log flight time and maintain proficiency.
Golf clubs and fishing poles are still considered standard equipment on some flights. And while the military has consistently maintained that unwarranted use of base planes is not a widespread problem, it has quietly reprimanded several high-ranking officers in top leadership positions on U.S. bases and abroad for abuses, documents indicate.
“We went wherever we wanted to go and had a good time,” said Larry Rosselot, a former Air Force captain and instructor who retired in February after a decade of flying training missions in the T-38 jet trainer out of air bases in Texas and Arizona.
“Guys took planes on cross-countries to go to a buddy’s wedding . . . or skiing in Salt Lake City, or go see girls, or whatever,” he said. “You make the most if it.”
The issue came to public attention in January when two top colonels at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Joseph E. Underwood and James E. Sabow, were suspended amid allegations that they had used base C-12 Beechcrafts repeatedly for golfing jaunts and other personal trips.
Sabow, who took household items and furniture to his son at college in Washington aboard a Beechcraft during a training trip, killed himself with a shotgun a few days after his dismissal eight months ago. Underwood was fired as chief of staff, fined, and forced into early retirement.
The scandal widened in April when the man who fired the two colonels--Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, 51, commander of the Marines’ four Western air bases--became the target of a military probe himself after reports in The Times that he, too, had mixed business with pleasure in using an El Toro-based Beechcraft.
Flight records showed that he used base planes on several questionable flights, including a return trip from a visit to Big Bear with his fiancee, and also failed to tell military doctors that he was taking heart medication while learning to fly the F/A-18 Hornet, the corps’ top-line, $31-million jet fighter.
Adams lost his job at El Toro, was reassigned to Virginia, and was given a career-threatening military reprimand last month. He has maintained that he did nothing wrong and is appealing the reprimand.
Military officials assert that the problem is largely isolated in El Toro.
“We do not . . . view misuse of aircraft by officers as a common occurrence or as an area requiring greater attention than any other area of military discipline,” Marine Corps spokesman Vance said.
Still, it is an area that has been under greater scrutiny by both the military and congressional staffers.
Jim Schweiter, general counsel for the House Armed Service Committee, said the Adams case at El Toro brought to the surface a problem that has long existed.
“People (in Congress) are waiting to see if the military will police itself,” Schweiter said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were other occasions where general officers have been using base planes as a perk of their office.”
Because disciplinary hearings for such infractions are usually conducted in closed military proceedings, it is difficult to determine just how widespread the problem is throughout the different branches of the armed forces.
Military officials have refused to give access to documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act on flight-use problems, and say they have no statistical breakdown on their frequency.
But whatever the extent of the problem, many fliers consider the controversy overblown.
“The (training) flights have got to be flown anyway, so why not go where you want to go?” said a former El Toro Marine pilot who is now based in Texas and requested anonymity. “Bad press means that senators and congressmen and those making policies become very sensitive and lay down a lot of new rules. The clamps are coming down so hard already that people don’t want to stay in (the service) anymore. It’s not even fun anymore.”
Others, like Marine Corps Inspector General Hollis Davison, disagree.
Concerned that the the problem may run deeper than El Toro, Davison sought a Marine Corps review aimed at determining whether flight procedures should be overhauled to avoid further embarrassments. The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., took him up on the proposal, and aviation-branch officials are now reviewing the inspector general’s recommendations.
As the highest investigative agency in the corps, Davison’s office probed the Adams affair. The general has now recommended that aviation officials “determine what additional measures are required to ensure adequate oversight,” according to a memo obtained by The Times.
At El Toro and elsewhere, officers cite the need to log training time in justifying their use of the base C-12 Beechcrafts.
But the memo appears to challenge that basic premise, recommending a “comprehensive C-12 training syllabus” to determine just how much air time a pilot really needs to stay proficient on the plane, which costs $433 an hour to operate.
It also calls for specific attention to the practice of using base planes to transport personnel to military conventions, a practice allegedly abused at El Toro.
In the case of Adams, for instance, investigators found that the general flew a C-12 to a military convention in Virginia, but took a 552-mile side trip to Florida during a tropical storm to sign divorce papers in a court there.
Part of the dilemma, some military officials suggest, is that the regulations leave room for broad interpretation of what is a legitimate flight. Still, past abuses have brought tougher new guidelines in some areas.
The Navy and Marine Corps, for instance, ban trips coinciding with major sporting events, in part because of incidents in the past when the Indianapolis 500 or the Army-Navy football game would inevitably result in military aircraft being parked in local hangars for the weekend.
Repeated flights to hometowns are also singled out as prohibited, as are flights aimed solely at “the convenience and/or prestige of the officers.”
Beyond this, the regulations instruct fliers and their authorizing officers to follow the general guideline that “any flight open to misinterpretation by the public shall be avoided.”
The issue often comes down to gauging motives.
Did Col. Underwood at El Toro, for instance, take a C-12 to Las Vegas and other spots around around the country so that he could play golf, or did he play golf during his off hours while getting in legitimate flight-training time?
Underwood insists that golfing was just a sidelight during his training mission--something to do “on my free time.” But investigators didn’t believe him, and the former El Toro chief of staff wound up pleading guilty at an in-house military hearing to charges of improper flights, along with other allegations centering on abuse of his authority.
As Art Bloomer, a retired Marine Corps general who headed the Western Air Command at El Toro through 1984, said: “It’s a perception thing, and the issue is just a lot more visible than it was several years ago. . . . Years ago, (pilots) used to take their wives on airplanes when they went to official military functions. Now, I think there’s a little more fear around these trips.”
“The perception is everything,” added Davis, the retired four-star general. “We’ve got honorable people in the Marine Corps, but sometimes they do things (that give off) the perception of not being so good.”
Despite the inspector general’s recommendations, other military officials insist that officers do keep close tabs on flight operations. And, in fact, there does appear to be a more restrictive climate than in years past on air bases.
Davis noted that were he in the service today, he would not even think of flying an A-6 from Cherry Point, N.C., to Maine just to bring back lobsters for a party--as he once did in the 1960s. The risk would be too great, Davis said, although he added that “it was a helluva party. Any time you can get 200 live Maine lobsters, it’s not a bad deal.”
Capt. Jim Mitchell, a Navy spokesman in Washington, said he also believes that the climate has changed since the 1970s when an aviation officer ordered a plane to go back to his hometown to fetch his golfing shoes. He had left them there after shooting a few rounds of golf. He was dismissed from the service after the trip was discovered.
“There’s so many people looking over your shoulder now, so many eyes,” Mitchell said. “The stakes are higher.”
Still, documents and interviews do lend some credence to claims by Adams, Underwood and the family of suicide victim Sabow that their trips were not all that different from what goes on regularly even today among the armed services’ more than 40,000 fliers.
On occasion, the problem has reached the highest levels.
Documents show that a colonel, who was commanding officer of the Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, Japan, took family and friends on 24 flights to Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Okinawa during his tenure there through 1989.
The commanding officer, whose name was deleted in the disciplinary report obtained by The Times, also was found to have destroyed “questionable flight manifests to cover up illegal passengers and flights.”
In June, 1989, the colonel was forced into early retirement after a non-judicial punishment hearing within the military, the same forum in which Adams was reprimanded Aug. 23. Two other officers, a lieutenant colonel and a sergeant major, were found to have helped the colonel in his misuse of the C-12 planes and were reprimanded.
Also in the Far East around the same time, an unnamed Marine brigadier general “gave the impression that he was using his public office for private gain” during an unspecified flight, documents show. No action was taken against the general, however, because his “motives were correct,” a Marine Corps disciplinary review found.
And the Naval Investigative Service also probed allegations in 1988 that a Navy admiral in the Pacific had violated policy by using fleet planes to pick up handmade redwood furniture from Asian cities and then transport the items back to the United States before his reassignment, according to a military source who took part in the probe at its outset.
There was no finding by the Navy that the admiral, James A. (Ace) Lyons Jr., had improperly used a plane. But he did ultimately reimburse the government more than $3,400 after it was determined that he had used four military personnel to help him move his possessions on a P-3 plane from Hawaii to start his retirement, officials said.
Another allegation levied against several senior officers at El Toro and elsewhere is that they have spent government money to become trained on certain jets, such as the T-39, in order to bolster their chances of gaining jobs with a commercial airline on retirement.
“Col. Sabow forced his way into the T-39. We did not need any T-39 pilots,” said an officer interviewed during the January probe and quoted in the investigative report.
Sabow’s family members acknowledge that the colonel had considered a post-retirement job with a private airline, but they say this was not the motivation for his additional training. Instead, he merely wanted new flight experience to move up in the military, they maintain.
“You need to get in the hours somewhere,” said Bill Callahan, a retired military officer and longtime friend of Sabow’s who is now a commercial pilot.
“You don’t want to be considered what they call ‘a plumber’ in the Marine Corps--a terrible pilot. Your prestige is on the line. . . . Take a staff officer who sits at his desk five days a week, and the only chance he gets to fly is on the weekend--he’s gonna take it,” Callahan said.
“It’s the love of flying, that’s why they do it.”