Charles Holbrook was killed after an F-16 student pilot mistook a line of rental cars for a demonstration target.
The family of a military contractor who was accidentally killed by an F-16 pilot has reached a settlement with the U.S. Air Force.
According to The Aviationist’s coverage of proceedings, Charles Holbrook—also known as Chuck—died January 31st, 2017, after a student pilot strafed his location in a training exercise gone wrong.
Holbrook’s wife, Belen, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force in December 2018, naming two unidentified F-16 pilots—an instructor and student—as co-defendants.
Holbrook, a retired master sergeant and business development manager at Sensors Unlimited, had been invited to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico by the U.S. Air Force. There, Holbrook was supposed to demonstrate a laser imaging device to visiting Dutch airmen.
The purpose of the exercise, says the lawsuit, was to show how such laser imagining systems can work in a “close air support scenario where F-16 fighter jets would attack with live ammunition an enemy position when “friendlies” were nearby. There were four jets in the air—2 instructors and 2 student pilots, each in their own F-16—and 10 individuals on the ground, some of who [sic] were training to direct air-support fire.”
However, the exercise was a first for the student pilots, who had never flown night-time drills using live ammunition.
Unfortunately, one of the student pilots appears to have mistaken Holbrook’s position with that of the intended target.
The intended target, says The Aviationist, was a “line of vehicles on a dirt circle.”
“The observers and civilian Charles Holbrook were placed less than half a mile away from the target in an almost identical configuration as the target—a line of rental vehicles on a dirt circle with a road going north of the circle,” the lawsuit said. “At night, in the dark, these two targets would d look the same.”
One of the student pilots then strafed the group of rental cars.
“Holbrook was killed when an F-16 student pilot mistook the line of rental cars for the similarly aligned target,” the suit stated. “[The student pilot] was ordered to fire at the group, blowing up one of the rental cars and striking Holbrook in the head with a 20 mm round. Holbrook died several hours later at the hospital.”
The Alamogordo Daily News notes that Belen Holbrook and the U.S. Air Force reached a settlement during a telephonic hearing on October 14th, overseen by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Vidmar.
While initial reports suggested that Holbrook’s family would receive approximately $25 million in damages, outlets—including the Alamogordo Daily News—have since reported that the actual figure is “lower” and “confidential.”