WASHINGTON -- Skimming low over hills in eastern Afghanistan, the 11 Marines packed into an Army Black Hawk helicopter asked for an exciting flight on an otherwise dull mission, demonstrating for visiting dignitaries how troops are sped into battle.
''Fly hard," the Marines asked.
''You asked for it," the cockpit responded, after the second request for acrobatics.
Climbing and swooping, the Black Hawk pilot crested a 400-foot hill then deliberately nosed into a dive so steep and abrupt that everyone inside felt weightless. A wheel chock rose off the floor like a magician's prop and flew forward into the cockpit, jamming the controls.
In the horrific, tumbling crash that followed, Daniel Lee Galvan, 30, a crew chief in the doorway died. Everyone else was injured. The $6 million helicopter was destroyed.
The accident last summer was among the latest in a series of exasperating crashes in the military blamed on recklessness, not enemy gunfire or faulty equipment, the Associated Press found.
''Top Gun"-style flying, personified by Tom Cruise as a brash Navy pilot in Hollywood's 1986 film, presents the Pentagon with a dilemma: how to breed aggressive aviators in high-performance jets and helicopters capable of extraordinary maneuvers without endangering crews, passengers, and aircraft.
The pilot in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Darrin Raymond Rogers, 37, of Mililani, Hawaii, pleaded guilty last week at his court-martial to charges of negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, property destruction, and failure to obey orders. He declined to be interviewed.
''I'm not a bad person," Rogers told the judge last week. He acknowledged that he was ''trying to impress the guys in the back." Rogers was sentenced to 120 days without pay at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. He also must retire from the Army, but will retain his pension.
''There's a difference between aggressiveness and recklessness," said Richard A. Cody, a four-star general who holds the Army's number two job. ''We want them to be aggressive but also disciplined, so they don't get themselves in an envelope they can't get out of."
Some pilots bristle over challenges to the way they fly, says a retired Marine Corps judge.
''Hot-dogging is not necessarily negligent," says Patrick McLain of Dallas, who has presided at courts-martial. ''You need a person who's bold and daring and courageous. It rubs against the grain to have this sort of nitpicking oversight. A very small minority would be in favor of scrupulous adherence to the voluminous rules about flying."
A retired Marine fighter pilot, Kris Elliott of New Orleans, said, ''Anybody who says they haven't hot-dogged as a pilot probably isn't being truthful."
In one case, a Naval Reserve pilot, Commander Kevin Thomas Hagenstad of Marietta, Ga., ejected and survived a crash in rural Tennessee last year that investigators attributed to flying so low that his $40 million fighter jet struck power lines 3 miles from the Watts Bar nuclear plant.
Hagenstad, who broke his ankle, said he was ''not at liberty to discuss this."
The Navy's top safety commander, Rear Admiral Dick Brooks, cited ''blatant" rules violations by Hagenstad.
Reckless accidents, which happen every year, frustrate senior military commanders because these typically occur during training flights and are considered easily avoidable. Air Force crews are encouraged to announce, ''Knock it off," when a pilot begins to fly unsafely.
''There will be repercussions," the head of Army aviation, Brigadier General E.J. Sinclair, said in an interview. ''If someone goes out there and does that and it's observed, I usually hear about it from another pilot."
At the same time, Sinclair said, the Army is rewriting rules to specify which maneuvers are allowed and teaching pilots aggressive new aerial techniques that push helicopters closer to their engineering design limits. ''We make it very clear, this is not something you go out and do on your own," Sinclair said.
For training, the Army uses a dramatic cockpit video from the crash of an
The tape also shows the pilot and copilot debating whether they can fly safely between tall trees while traveling nearly 90 miles per hour 16 feet above ground.
''Think I can make it in between there?" the pilot asks.
''Nope," the copilot answers.
''Oh, ye of little faith. Look how big that is," the pilot says.
Seconds later, the Apache's rotors struck a huge limb, shattering one blade as the pilot struggled to land safely. ''C'mon, get it under control, Mark!" the copilot shouts. Both crew members survived. The 1997 accident caused $1 million in damage.
Marine Lieutenant General Mike Hough contended last summer in a memorandum to his aviation commanders: ''We are killing more aircrew in training mishaps than during combat missions. . . . I will not tolerate the blatant violations and lack of leadership I am seeing from our aviators."
Hough's tough message was voiced weeks before a Hornet fighter crash in Quantico, Va., that the Navy attributed to ''unacceptable" flying.