Pilot was under hold-fire order

Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 1:14 a.m.

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. - An American pilot who mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan last year, killing four of them, was under orders to hold fire when he dropped the bomb, a fellow airman testified Friday.

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U.S. Air Force Maj. William Umbach, right, and his wife, Marlene, walk into his Article 32 hearing Friday at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

(AP Photo)

Maj. John Milton spoke at a hearing to determine whether two members of his Illinois National Guard squadron should be court-martialed. Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach are charged with involuntary manslaughter and could face as many as 64 years in a military prison if convicted.

An audio and videotape of the incident, taken from Schmidt's F-16, has been the key piece of evidence during the hearing and it was played again Friday.

On it, a flight controller is heard saying ``hold fire'' after Schmidt requests permission to fire his 20 millimeter cannons. Schmidt had spotted fire on the ground and thought Umbach was under attack.

Milton said the order meant Schmidt must refrain from attacking.

Schmidt said he was ``rolling in'' to drop the guided bomb and he did so 39 seconds after the ``hold fire'' order. Besides killing the four soldiers, the blast wounded eight other Canadians who had been performing anti-tank exercises with live ammunition.

Survivors testified earlier that they were not firing into the air at the time. Defense lawyers have suggested the pilots thought they were under fire from enemy forces.

Under cross-examination, Milton indicated that a hold-fire order does not apply when a pilot believes he is under attack. Official reports on the incident from the U.S. and Canadian governments say Schmidt cited self-defense at the same time he said he was ``rolling in.''

Milton, who has flown similar F-16 missions over Afghan combat zones, was not involved in the April 17 bombing. He was called as a government witness to explain, as a pilot, how he understood the events that led up to the bombing. He has testified he ``is biased'' in his colleagues' favor.

The defense has suggested that a breakdown in military communications kept the pilots from knowing there were allied troops in the area that night.

Milton indicated he was never briefed or given written materials about allies at Tarnak Farm, the firing range where the Canadians held their exercises the night of the bombing.

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