Chuck Holbrook was retired from the Air Force. The 53-year-old had won the Bronze Star and several commendation medals for service to his country. Even in retirement, he was still serving the U.S. when he went to the White Sands Missile Range in 2017.
Holbrook, who had gone on to work in business development for Sensors Unlimited, had been invited by the Air Force to the range in New Mexico. He was to demonstrate who a laser imaging device worked at night.
At the same time, 2 young pilots were performing a live-fire exercise. Holbrook was accidentally shot in the head and died an hour and a half later.
The Air Force’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) looked into the reason for the tragedy. Holbrook wasn’t blameless—the AIB reports that he had been given protective equipment and displayed some complacency by not putting it on.
However, that same report questioned whether the equipment would have been sufficient protection for what happened and that pilot error was the primary cause of death.
The practice mission involved 4 F-16 planes, 2 flown by students and the other 2 flown by instructors. The task was to take out an enemy position that had so-called “friendlies” nearby. In other words, to carry out a very targeted air raid.
Holbrook, and the 10 people that accompanied him for the demonstration, were used as friendlies. The AIB report indicated that there was no evidence that Holbrook was informed that his party was to be used as a “friendly.”
The actual target was a line of rental cars. This mission was the student pilots’ first time using night goggles and the first time performing a mission which required this level of precision.
Holbrook’s party was mistaken for the rental vehicles and one of the student pilots opened fire. There were no other fatalities, but 1 other person was injured. The AIB report also found the instructor pilot to have failed in providing adequate supervision.
Randi McGinn is the attorney for the Holbrook family and she sued the Air Force for nearly $25 million. “This is an example of there are no accidents, only poor planning,” she said, while at the same time recognizing that the Air Force had shown tremendous compassion for the Holbrooks in reaching out.
The combination of the AIB’s admission of wrongdoing and the genuine outreach to the Holbrook’s made a settlement possible. The amount is undisclosed, but it is less than what was originally sought, yet still enough to take care of Holbrook’s widow and his daughter for the rest of their lives.