The Hill Air Force Base pilot, who the Air Force said this week accidentally shot at two soldiers earlier this year, is a major with over 800 flying hours and was scheduled to deploy last month to Balad Air Base in Iraq with the 34th Fighter Squadron's 120-day rotation .

But the unnamed pilot with Hill's 388th Fighter Wing on April 8 in an instant misidentified a target 1.5 miles away from the intended hit during nighttime training exercises on the Utah Test and Training Range. In the next moment he fired six 20mm high-explosive incendiary rounds into a rented sport utility vehicle occupied by two soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash.

"I don't have detailed information on our pilots' accuracy with the 20mm cannon but can say that one incident like this is too many," Hill's 1st Lt. Beth Woodward said Wednesday.

The soldiers escaped the vehicle with only scrapes and abrasions, then ran to a nearby ravine for cover, calling in the strike and for the mission to be aborted, Woodward said. Fort Lewis spokesman Joe Piek said Wednesday it's fortunate that "we're talking about a serious training accident and not something worse."

The pilot, who Hill officials would not name, was grounded until the close of an investigation, which was announced this week. Woodward said the pilot was "current" and qualified to fly the training sortie last April.

"Subsequently, appropriate administrative actions and changes to the pilot's flight qualifications have been taken," Woodward said. "Additional classroom, simulator and flight training is required to ensure the individual is qualified for wing missions."

Investigators concluded the pilot momentarily lost visual "reference" with his intended target. He was taking part in an evening close-air support training sortie when he misidentified a target while using night vision goggles.

Woodward said the pilot's wingman used the F-16's Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, a laser spot tracker that speeds up target detection.

"The mishap pilot's wingman correctly illuminated the intended target during this mission with the laser marker," she said.

The investigation found the pilot had rolled into a strafing run, came out of the roll and missed his target over the UTTR by 1.5 miles, instead firing on the two soldiers who were part of the training operations taking place.

"In the end, he was trying to make the strafing pass work and most likely was concentrating on his flight parameters more than the target area itself," Woodward said.

The investigation also led to an assessment of local training procedures and an "evaluation of air-to-ground coordination during night training operations" at the UTTR.

Col. Scott Dennis, 388th commander, said close-air support missions are complex and that "valuable lessons" have been learned from the incident.

"We have since implemented several changes to our tactics and procedures in order to prevent another occurrence," Dennis said in a statement. "We are fully committed to keeping the range a safe place to practice the skill sets needed to bring air power to the enemy."


E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com