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Philadelphia Inquirer November 6, 2004

Range is shut after strafing

Lautenberg urged the Guard to halt training. A probe of the school incident to take weeks.

By Troy Graham and Tom Infield; Inquirer Staff Writers

The Warren Grove target range in the Pine Barrens will remain closed until military investigators can learn why an F-16 pilot on a training mission Wednesday night mistakenly strafed a nearby intermediate school.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) also called on the unit whose pilot fired on the school to suspend all training in New Jersey until the matter is resolved.

"The actions of the pilot - whether accidental or not - are totally incomprehensible," Lautenberg wrote to the unit's commanding general.

The 2,600-acre Warren Grove Gunnery Range, in operation since World War II, is one of two Air Force target ranges in the Northeast and handles up to 3,000 sorties a year.

The New Jersey Air National Guard, which operates the range, closed it Thursday.

While many details of the shooting remain unanswered, officials said the District of Columbia Air National Guard pilot whose plane mistakenly fired on the school should have realized that his 20mm Vulcan cannon had discharged.

"Given the type of gun, he probably heard it and felt it," said Army Maj. Sheldon Smith, a spokesman for the D.C. National Guard.

Officials have described the firing of about two dozen metal training slugs as inadvertent. About eight of the shots hit the roof of the Little Egg Harbor Township school around 9 p.m. Wednesday. Several janitors were working in the building, but no one was injured.

The pilot was flying one of two F-16 fighter jets on a practice strafing run to the target range, which is less than four miles from the school.

The pilot would have been required to arm the weapons system, then pull a trigger on the control stick to make the Gatling-type gun fire, experts said.

Made by General Dynamics, the Vulcan cannon employs six rotating barrels to achieve a rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute.

"You've got to pull the trigger to make that happen," said Charles W. Gittins, a former Marine pilot and attorney who represents military personnel accused of wrongdoing.

But investigators at the D.C. National Guard, which is handling the inquiry, have not ruled out mechanical failure. They have isolated the plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where the D.C. Air National Guard is stationed. Smith said a battery of tests on the plane will be conducted.

The military yesterday was impaneling a customary "accident investigation board" to explore the shooting, said Scott Woodham, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington.

"That's being done as we speak. They'll start right away," he said early yesterday afternoon. "They'll go through the whole A to Z, from takeoff to landing."

Military officials have not given a timetable for completing the investigation, but a congressional aide said such inquiries typically "can be measured in weeks."

Both Woodham and Smith said they had few new details to release yesterday. They have not disclosed the pilot's name or rank, but Smith described him as an "experienced" flyer.

Gittins, who represented an Air National Guard F-16 pilot who mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan in 2002, said the D.C. pilot probably has been grounded.

"They don't want to put him in a position where he could make another mistake," he said.

The pilot could be charged with dereliction of duty if the investigation finds that he acted "negligently or willfully," Gittins said.

But, he said, the pilot may have simply fired too soon in his strafing dive. If the bullets were fired from too high an altitude, they could have traveled much farther than intended, he said. The plane was at 7,000 feet when it fired; its altitude for firing can be as low as 5,000 feet.

"The bullets can go really far afield," Gittins said.

Col. Brian Webster, the commander of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, told the New York Times that the pilot was in a strafing dive and fired too soon. But he also said at a news conference that it was possible the shots were fired while the plane was climbing, and the bullets arced before striking the school.

Smith and Woodham said it was too early to determine whether the plane was diving or climbing when the burst was fired.

U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R., N.J.) also has asked for a briefing on the investigation, his spokesman said, but would wait to see a report before suggesting that any action be taken.

"It's pretty apparent at this time that it was an accident," said the spokesman, Jeff Sagnip Hollendonner. "We'll see what the report says."

The Little Egg Harbor Township Intermediate School in Ocean County, which serves 970 students from third to sixth grade, was closed most of this week because teachers were attending a conference in Atlantic City. School officials said engineers would check the building for structural damage, and repairs likely would be completed by Monday, when classes are scheduled to resume.

The Air Force has 32 training sites in the United States for aerial bombing and gunner training. Only Warren Grove and the Bollen Range at Fort Indiantown Gap in Annville, Lebanon County, Pa., are in the Northeast. The rest are spread among 18 states, mostly in the West, South and Midwest.

Gittins said practice bombs and bullets going astray is "not infrequent." As a navigator in a Marine fighter, he was involved in an incident when his plane pulled up as a bomb was being released at a Nevada range. The bomb landed on a farmer's ranch.

Warren Grove has had two incidents in the last several years in which stray practice bombs sparked forest fires in the Pine Barrens. And, on Oct. 13, an errant practice bomb missed the central Pennsylvania range and nearly hit a hiker.

Military expert John Pike, of the think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said most of the ranges were opened decades ago when the United States, in general, was a more rural place. He said the development of homes and commerce near some ranges has been a problem.

The military could require pilots to use only sites in more desolate areas of Texas or Arizona, but that could be a hardship for pilots in the East, Pike said. Any community that wants to close a range could lobby next year when the Pentagon considers possible base closures, he said.

Many residents near the Warren Grove range seemed untroubled by the errant strafing, calling it an isolated incident. And despite development in some communities there, the huge 1.1-million-acre Pine Barrens remains a mostly open expanse, Sagnip Hollendonner said.

"If you look at the aerials, you see nothing but the Atlantic Ocean and large sections of the Pine Barrens that are undevelopable," he said. "The Pine Barrens is not a high-growth area."

Copyright 2004, Philadelphia Inquirer