'Yeah, this Is Fun!' The Chronicle of a Deadly Blackwater Flight

Three years ago, six men died when a Blackwater plane crashed in Afghanistan. The gruesome details are only emerging now. They reveal the cynicism of a war between audacity and folly, where men reach the edge of reason.

By in New York


Harvey Miller almost missed the plane. Early that morning, the United States Army Specialist had sent an e-mail to his wife Sarah and his one-year-old son Korey: "Love you bunches." Then Miller, 21, rushed through the military base of Bagram, Afghanistan, to make his flight to return to Farah, where he was stationed. The turboprop was already rolling across the tarmac and stopped again just to load him up.

It was Nov. 27, 2004. Blackwater 61 -- its official flight code -- was a transport flight operated by Presidential Airways, a subsidiary of the US security contractor Blackwater. It handled airlifts for the Pentagon in the area, as part of a $35 million contract. On board with Miller and several crates of illumination mortar rounds were the Blackwater crew -- pilot Noel English, 37, co-pilot Loren Hammer, 35, and flight mechanic Melvin Rowe, 43 -- and two other army passengers: Lieutenant Colonel Michael McMahon, 41, and Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan, 31.

Shortly after 7 a.m., the propeller plane took off. The weather was good, the visibility was clear. Roughly 45 minutes later, the plane smashed into a rocky canyon wall high in the mountains.

The crash of Blackwater 61, with its blood-curdling details only now fully revealed, has long been a forgotten chapter in the drama of that security company. Even more so: It exposes the cynicism of a war, which has become almost a videogame for its warriors. The doom of that flight, chillingly documented in official investigative reports and a dramatic cockpit voice recording, paints a picture of a campaign between audacity and folly.

The tragedy only came to full light this week during Blackwater CEO Erik Prince's testimony before the US House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee. When chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat, broached the subject briefly, Prince denied all responsibility: "The Air Force investigated the incident, and they found it was pilot error."

"We'll Just See Where this Leads"

Yet both the Collateral Investigation Board (CIB), an investigative office within the US Army, and the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) of the US government beg to differ slightly. In separate, internal reports they blamed not only the pilots, but also Blackwater's lax safety measures.

Blackwater 61 was actually designated a cargo flight to transport ammunition to Farah. The three soldiers were simply let on because there was extra room. The pilot and co-pilot had arrived in Afghanistan just two weeks prior.

Blackwater was aware of their lack of experience. During the committee hearing, Waxman read an internal Blackwater e-mail which acknowledged that they "did not meet the criteria" and "had some background and experience shortfalls."

The flight seemed doomed from the start. According to the NTSB, the pilots neither filed a flight plan nor did they put on the required oxygen masks -- without using masks, pilots in this kind of plane can get high-altitude euphoria.

Blackwater 61 rolled towards the runway, stopped briefly again to take in Harvey Miller, then took off. Four minutes later, English's voice can be heard on the cockpit voice-recorder: "I hope I'm goin' in the right valley." Then: "We'll just see where this leads."

Two Urine Stains in the Snow

A few minutes passed with harmless banter. Then Hammer cried out: "Yeah, this is fun!" But English nagged: "We're not suppose to be havin' fun though." Hammer agreed: "It's supposed to be all work, we can't enjoy any of it (…) Cause we're getting' paid too much to be havin' fun."

Apparently to "have fun," English had steered the plane off the route and into a narrow canyon, pulling off daredevil maneuvers, without radar, flying by plain sight. What followed on the tape is a stunning dialogue that shows how war brings men to the edge -- the edge of death, the edge of reason. The pilots joke, swear, curse, and call themselves "X-Wing fighter Star Wars" men -- until their plane finally smashed into a rock wall.

After the crash, it took the army eight hours to send out search teams, only realizing that Blackwater 61 was missing after it had failed to return to Bagram. Since Blackwater hadn't filed a flight plan and never kept track of the flight, the search was unsuccessful for many hours.

The wreckage of the plane was not discovered until the next morning, on November 28, on a heavily snowed-in rock wall at 14,650 feet. Because the terrain was so inaccessibly and a storm moved into the area, it took rescuers another two days to reach the site.

There they made a gruesome discovery. It looked as if one of the passengers, though injured, had initially survived for hours. His body was found in the back of the fuselage, clad only in pants and shoes. Next to him were an unrolled sleeping bag, a cigarette butt, an opened Ready-to-Eat meal, and a half-empty water bladder from a hydration system.

That dead man was Specialist Harvey Miller.

"Accidents Happen"

The NTSB determined hat Miller had even crawled out of the wreck briefly. The search teams found two frozen urine stains in the snow. The autopsy concluded that none of Miller's injuries had been life threatening. He had survived for at least ten hours and then succumbed to hypoxia and hypothermia. "If the passenger had received medical assistance within that time frame, followed by appropriate surgical intervention, he most likely would have survived," the NTSB wrote.

The Army, in its report, came to similarly critical conclusions. Yet for the longest time that report was only circulated internally, with much of the document remaining classified and blacked-out. Finally, lawyers for the families of the three dead soldiers got their hands on a complete copy -- and immediately sued Blackwater for negligence. The lawsuit is still pending.

Blackwater itself initially denied having anything to do with Presidential Airways and Flight 61. Later, it called the reports by the NTSB and the Army CIB "erroneous" and "politically motivated." They were only intended to cover for the military's failures, Joseph E. Schmitz, chief operating officer and general counsel for the Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater and Presidential told the News & Observer newspaper.

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, too, showed himself unmoved when the case came up in the hearing on Tuesday. Instead, he defended his fun-loving crash pilots: "I disagree with the assertion that they acted like cowboys." Besides, he added drily: "Accidents happen."

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