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 — amphetamines.
Amphetamines, a prescription drug, are known on the street as uppers or speed. Yet, a 20/20 investigation has found, the amphetamines, the 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 we'd see the jets go over it was always a great, wholesome feeling of pride," said Schmidt's wife, Lisa.
Umbach said he felt an obligation to serve. "It's sort of a patriotic thing. I feel like it's 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 Umbach's lives forever and would bring about their facing a court martial.
The Air Force calls the amphetamines it 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 that's tough, you're 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 country's leading drug addiction authorities, says he was stunned to learn about the Air Force's use of amphetamines. "This is speed. This is where we got the phrase, speed kills," he said.
DuPont, who contends the "go pills" can be highly addictive, said, "It's a frightening concept to me from my experience in dealing with amphetamines to 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 DuPont's characterization of heavy amphetamine use suggests the "go pill" policy may be playing with fire. He said, "People who get strung out on amphetamines are, are usually crazy. They're 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 the amphetamines widely available to combat pilots, it also has informed them they could be considered unfit to fly certain missions if they don't voluntarily take the amphetamines.
"A combat sortie that's 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.
But amphetamines, no 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 the amphetamines are 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 they're effective. I believe they're well-administered," he said.
But that's 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, Umbach's civilian attorney, said, "They will be marked, they will be known. Their careers will basically be over."
Beck said, "What's happened in this case is that blame has been fixed at the lowest level, the pilots.
Capt. Matt Skobel, Umbach's 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 Schmidt's 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 the amphetamine pills, that the two pilots spotted weapons fire near the Kandahar air base, as can be heard on the cockpit tapes obtained by 20/20.
"I've got some men on a road with a piece of artillery firing at us. I'm 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 amphetamines.
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 wouldn't 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. … It's one of the most devastating things I think anyone could go through," said Schmidt's wife, Lisa.
As for the "go pills" — the speed — the Air Force says there's 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, "It's not a choice at all."