Army 'VIP culture' led to parachute accident that killed former JBLM officer
He didn't belong on the plane.
A former Joint Base Lewis-McChord officer who died in a September accident was not ready to jump with a new kind of parachute when he attempted his first airborne drill in four years, according to an Army investigation obtained by The News Tribune.
That wasn't the only mistake that contributed to the death of Col. Darron Wright, a popular senior officer who spent the previous four years helping lead a JBLM Stryker brigade in combat and held a series of prestigious headquarters assignments at the base south of Tacoma.
Wright’s tragic fall from an Air Force C-130 plane flying 1,000 feet above the ground in North Carolina was made possible by a string of administrative oversights, according to the investigation. It was also enabled by a “VIP culture” at Fort Bragg, the Army's largest post, that allowed senior officers to make late demands on their subordinates and skip the basic safety briefings junior soldiers must attend.
“This VIP crap stops now,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, fumed when he read the report on how one of his highest-ranking officers died in a preventable accident a few months before they were scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.
Wright, 45, left behind a wife and three children. He’s memorialized at JBLM, where a room in the 7th Infantry Division Headquarters is dedicated to his memory.
Friends and colleagues called him “larger than life.” He served three tours in Iraq and wrote a memoir of his war years, called “Iraq Full Circle,” so the world would understand what he saw.
He joined the XVIII Airborne Corps in August 2013 as its plans officer, one of the senior soldiers on Anderson’s staff. Its headquarters soldiers are now in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The corps is a paratrooper command unit whose members are expected to practice jumping out of airplanes in case they’re called for an airborne mission.
Wright, an expert parachutist with more than 60 jumps behind him, was getting back up to speed as an airborne officer when he requested a spot on a Sept. 23 jump. It would be his first airborne training jump since he left the ground-based units at JBLM.
But when two senior officers asked for late changes to the plans for the jump, it set off a chain reaction that eliminated any margin for error.
A fateful decision
Four days before the flight, XVIII Airborne Chief of Staff Robert Morschauser and Deputy Chief of Staff William Steele determined they and three others scheduled for the jump should use a steerable parachute instead of the standard variety used by most conventional soldiers at Fort Bragg.
The MC-6 steerable parachute has been in the Army inventory for about five years and is mostly used by Special Operations troops.
The MC-6 also is a standard parachute for general officers. The staff officers who requested the steerable chutes for the Sept. 23 jump had used them before and believed they were expected to do so because they were part of Anderson’s command team.
The officers got what they wanted, but the change was not reflected on the official mission plan, according to an investigation conducted by Brig. Gen. Christopher Cavoli.
As a result:
- The plane that dropped Wright and other soldiers that day was not flying at the recommended altitude for the MC-6 parachute. It flew at 1,000 feet – 200 feet too low. The Army officers on board did not convey to the pilots that they had to fly at a higher altitude when the Army leaders decided to use the new parachutes.
- The late decision to have Wright and other “VIPs” use the new parachute led to more work for an undermanned parachute-rigging company. Wright’s parachute was not packed to the latest standards and had two small flaws. The unit, known as the 11th Quartermaster Company, was known as a sweatshop in the Army. Officials had demanded a restructuring of the company after the 2011 death of another paratrooper Staff Sgt. Jamal Clay. The overhaul never happened, Cavoli wrote.
- Wright attended a paratrooper basic refresher course on Aug. 14 just after he arrived at Fort Bragg. Soldiers are supposed to jump within 30 days of attending that course, meaning Wright’s training had expired by the time of his fatal jump. His headquarters did not follow up to check his parachuting records.
- Wright and three other “VIPs” skipped a mandatory morning safety briefing and mock drill for their flight. Their jumpmaster, deferring to the officers’ experience, did not go over the drill with them when they arrived two hours late.
Army makes changes
Cavoli wrote that Wright “should not have been able to get on the manifest” for the jump because his certification from his refresher courses had expired.
He also found that none of the soldiers should have been able to use the MC-6 parachutes without written permission from a general officer. They did not get it, but no one questioned them.
“It is evident that the existing culture in XVIII Airborne Corps accepts that high-ranking individuals may skip institutionalized procedures with which the rest of the airborne population complies,” Cavoli wrote.
His report recommends 25 policy changes that affect planning for airborne missions, medical support at paratrooper drop zones and the organization of the notoriously overworked 11th Quartermaster Company.
Col. Michael Lacey, the corps’ top lawyer, wrote in an email to The News Tribune that Lt. Gen. Anderson appointed a lieutenant colonel to make sure that each change is adopted — an unusual step.
“This was the first time I have seen this done in over 15 years of reviewing these types of investigations,” Lacey wrote.
Since Cavoli finished the report, Fort Bragg has a new policy letter spelling out standards for use of the MC-6 parachute and an updated system to make sure paratroopers are qualified for their jumps. In addition, the 11th Quartermaster Company received enough soldiers to reach nearly full strength.
Senior officers also received renewed orders emphasizing that they must attend safety briefings. If they don’t, they will be scratched from missions by the enlisted jumpmasters, Lacey said.
Lt. Gen. “Anderson emphasized the basic leadership principle that leaders must lead by example,” Lacey wrote. “Further, all paratroopers must attend all required training and adhere to airborne (standard operation procedures), regardless of rank or workload.”
‘Hope you're trained'
On the morning of the accident, just one soldier confronted the VIP officers when they arrived late to the flight line. He was Col. Brett Jenkinson, the corps operations officer and the only jumper with the same rank as the staff officers.
Jenkinson remembered glaring at Steele and Wright. “You’re late and you put (the jumpmaster team) in a bad position,” Jenkinson said.
He looked to Wright and said, “Hope you’re trained; dudes get hurt jumping those things.”
“I’m good,” Wright assured Jenkinson.
Wright was the fifth man to leave the plane. Witnesses said the aircraft might have hit some turbulence, and that Wright might have made a weak exit.
He hit the edge of the door and began an uncontrollable summersault. His leg caught the rig, and the parachute would not open correctly. Parachute lines became tangled as he spun in the air.
His peers on the ground and in the air watching the accident unfold shouted to him, “Reserve! Reserve! Reserve!” urging him to pull the cord for his second chute.
He pulled the line for the reserve chute just 40 feet above ground. It was too late.
Wright appears to be the Army’s only fatal casualty in an MC-6 training incident, according to data from the Army Safety Center.