Dec. 20, 2002 -- Preliminary court-martial proceedings begin next month against two U.S. fighter pilots involved in a tragic incident over Afghanistan that cost four lives and exposed a little-known fact about the way America fights its long-distance air wars.
Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach are facing up to 64 years in prison for a friendly fire incident over Kandahar Afghanistan on April 17 that killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight others.
When the two were sent on their mission over Afghanistan and Iraq the Air Force gave them $30 million F-16 fighter jets laser-guided precision munitions state-of-the-art technology and something that came as a complete surprise — .
a prescription drug are known on the street as uppers or speed. Yet a 20/20 investigation has found thethe speed pills are now standard issue to U.S. Air Force combat pilots to help them stay awake on long combat sorties.
The two pilots from Illinois are part of the 183rd fighter wing of the Illinois Air National Guard. Schmidt trained as a top gun fighter pilot was sent to Afghanistan in March. Umbach was called up at the same time leaving behind his family and a full-time job as a United Airlines pilot.
Schmidt and Umbach and their families both viewed their military service with pride. Being military we have always lived in the flight pattern. And when wed see the jets go over it was always a great wholesome feeling of pride said Schmidts wife Lisa.
Umbach said he felt an obligation to serve. Its sort of a patriotic thing. I feel like its something that I should do he said.
But what happened in the skies over Kandahar on the night of April 17 would change Schmidt and Umbachs lives forever and would bring about their facing a court martial.
The Air Force calls theit distributes to pilots go pills. They were quietly reintroduced after being banned in 1992 by the then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak. In my opinion if you think you have to take a pill to face something thats tough youre in the wrong business McPeak said.
There were reports during the Gulf War of American pilots becoming psychologically addicted to the go pills and their use now seriously concerns many leading drug addiction experts.
Dr. Robert DuPont a former White House drug czar and one of the countrys leading drug addiction authorities says he was stunned to learn about the Air Forces use of
DuPont who contends the go pills can be highly addictive said Its a frightening concept to me from my experience in dealing withto have this be a routine activity.
One Air Force pilot told us We all carry them as a bit of insurance.
Controllers in an AWACS plane overhead told Schmidt to hold his fire but convinced he and Umbach were under attack Schmidt opened fire.
Bombs away. Cranking left. Lasers on. Shack Schmidt said on the tape.
But DuPonts characterization of heavyuse suggests the go pill policy may be playing with fire. He said People who get strung out onare are usually crazy. Theyre paranoid they stop eating. … Their judgment is impaired and they do very bad things. … They are among the sickest of all drug addicts.
Unfit to Fly Without Pills?
Yet not only is the Air Force making thewidely available to combat pilots it also has informed them they could be considered unfit to fly certain missions if they dont voluntarily take the .
A combat sortie thats seven or eight or nine hours is very challenging. You have highs and lows said Gen. Daniel Leaf a two star general and former combat pilot who has been assigned to defend the use of the go pills. He says the pills are only prescribed in small controlled doses.
The American public should be very concerned if we were not providing every opportunity to counter the demonstratedly fatal potential impact of fatigue Leaf said.
Butno matter the dose are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration to combat fatigue and are listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule Two narcotic in the same category as cocaine.
Leaf said theare not used for recreation. He described them as a medical tool.
Our medical community has carefully evaluated their use deemed it appropriate. I agree. I believe theyre effective. I believe theyre well-administered he said.
But thats not what Schmidt and Umbach said they found when they arrived at their post in Kuwait. According to their defense lawyers the two pilots were told by superiors they could be found unfit to fly the mission unless they took the pills.
Dave Beck Umbachs civilian attorney said They will be marked they will be known. Their careers will basically be over.
Beck said Whats happened in this case is that blame has been fixed at the lowest level the pilots.
Capt. Matt Skobel Umbachs military lawyer said pilots need the pills in order to complete their difficult missions. These missions were at the limit of the pilots physical and mental endurance. And these pills were required to allow them to do it Skobel said.
Pilots simply sign up on a clipboard for six go pills at a time and are told to use them as needed. But Umbach says he knew from his civilian job that such pills were strictly banned for commercial airline pilots.
But use them he did along with his wingman Maj. Schmidt on their April 17 night mission over Afghanistan about an hour before tragedy would strike according to Schmidts defense lawyer Charles Gittins.
An hour after he took the pills … he would have been feeling the maximum serum level in his blood Gittins said.
It was then under the full influence of thepills that the two pilots spotted weapons fire near the Kandahar air base as can be heard on the cockpit tapes obtained by 20/20.
Ive got some men on a road with a piece of artillery firing at us. Im rolling in self defense Schmidt can be heard saying on the tape.
It was only after Schmidt dropped the bomb that he was told it was not the enemy. What Schmidt hit was a squad of Canadian soldiers killing four of them wounding eight. What the military calls friendly fire.
The pilots had not been told the Canadians would be conducting a night live-fire training exercise in the area even though the Canadians had properly informed the U.S. military.
They were great soldiers that in a split second got wiped out for no reason said Canadian Sgt. Lorne Ford who lost his right eye and suffered a severe injury to his left leg in the incident.
A joint Canadian-American investigation put the blame on the two U.S. pilots for essentially being too quick to open fire under the rules of engagement they were supposed to follow behavior that experts say is typical of someone on speed or .
DuPont said the pills might have prompted the pilots to a quick conclusion that is wrong. Where if you had a little more reflection you have come to another conclusion. He said he wouldnt rule out that the go pills may have been a factor in the deadly incident.
But the Air Force has ruled out the go pills Schmidt and Umbach took as being responsible in any way.
And the two men now back home in Illinois face four counts of manslaughter and dereliction of duty the most serious charges ever brought in a friendly fire case.
Obviously you feel very betrayed … Its one of the most devastating things I think anyone could go through said Schmidts wife Lisa.
As for the go pills — the speed — the Air Force says theres no reason for any change in policy that they are essential for combat pilots now being sent to war over Afghanistan and Iraq.
"These men are patriots, these men were sent to fight a war and they're put in a situation where it's either take these pills or you don't fly," Skobel said.
For a pilot Skobel said Its not a choice at all.