Two Army soldiers, whose combat duties include working to prevent "friendly fire" mishaps, narrowly avoided harm when an F-16 fighter jet from Hill Air Force Base opened fire on their SUV while driving at the Utah Test and Training Range.
The incident occurred during a nighttime training mission April 8 in which the fighter pilot was practicing shooting at ground targets. The soldiers were not hit, but did suffer minor injuries "while exiting the vehicle in rough terrain," according to a statement from the base. The sport utility vehicle, a rental from Avis, was damaged in the incident, but base officials declined to say whether it was hit by the jet's 20mm cannon fire or crashed after the soldiers jumped out.
An investigation board, headed by 388th Fighter Wing Commander Scott Dennis, will determine whether the soldiers were in the wrong area of the range or whether the fighter pilot targeted the wrong vehicle.
"One incident like this is too many," Dennis said in the statement. "While war fighting is a dangerous line of work, we take exhaustive measures to train safely and smartly in preparation for our combat deployments."
The soldiers were part of a Joint Terminal Attack Control unit from Fort Lewis, Wash., training to identify enemy targets and direct U.S. aircraft to fire on them. Similar training involving JTAC members and pilots from the 34th Fighter Squadron has been ongoing at the range since early March, although a base spokeswoman said the specific soldiers involved in the April 8 incident had just begun their training the night before.
Live fire air-to-ground exercises are common at the range, and usually involve broken or obsolete military vehicles such as tanks and trucks. The target vehicles are often "warmed" with flares, which simulate running engines for pilots flying with the aid of heat-sensitive night vision devices.
Chris Wilson, a former Hill pilot who now works as a JTAC officer at Fort Lewis, told the Hill base newspaper last month that JTAC soldiers come to the Utah range to create "ever-changing scenarios," which help pilots "understand how to support special operations forces."
"We are training ourselves and also helping pilots be better," Wilson said, " . . . so they can understand what we are looking for on the ground."
The soldiers, who were treated and released in "good condition" from Mountain West Medical Center in Tooele, have returned to their base in Washington, according to Hill spokeswoman Beth Woodward.
Woodward said she was unsure whether the pilot involved in the incident or any other Hill officer or airman had been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation, although such action is common in friendly-fire incidents, both in training and at war.
Airmen and base contractors from unrelated commands at Hill have been the subject of several unflattering and high-profile incidents made public over the past month.
In early March, Defense Department officials revealed that they were looking into the mistaken shipment of four ballistic missile fuses from a depot at the northern Utah base to Taiwan, which had ordered a set of helicopter batteries.
Last week, base officials acknowledged that they had burned several pounds of depleted uranium in a Layton incinerator before realizing that the parts were tainted with the radioactive material.
In both incidents, military officials stepped forward to make the matters public. Woodward said that wasn't the plan with the friendly-fire incident, but the base was prompted to acknowledge the incident when a local television station got wind of the mishap.
"With it taking place in the confines of the Utah Test and Training Range and it being a training exercise and thankfully nobody was seriously hurt, we were pursuing the investigation from that point," Woodward said. "It definitely is important for us to remain transparent in how we train and operate, but with this incident, thankfully, it was not serious enough and so we decided not to go proactive with it."