Learning From Loss: the Story of Maj. Mike Freyholtz and Sitka 43

FreyholtzNearly three years ago, a C-17 lifted off the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska to conduct practice for an upcoming airshow.  A few minutes later, it impacted the ground and exploded.  Four airmen were lost.  The pilot of that ill-fated jet was a cherished friend and two-time squadron mate of mine.  He left behind a crowd of survivors and admirers who have silently mourned his loss, constrained from full-heartedly celebrating his life because of the sorrowful manner of his death.  This Memorial Day, I’m compelled to remember him, explore the way he and his crew met their end, and what larger meaning we can extract from their fate.  I do this in part because I believe Major Mike Freyholtz and his crew deserve to have their legacy reconsidered, and in larger part because I know he’d want us to learn all we can from his this terrible loss.

The crash of Sitka 43 has been officially summarized by the Air Force as a matter of pilot error.  Mike flew the aircraft beyond its limits and his crew failed to keep him from doing so.  While this is really an incomplete description of the final link in a long chain of events, what’s clear is that Mike ended his life on a mistake.  He made a series of erroneous inputs and bad decisions in an unforgiving environment, and it cost him his life.  In the time since, his legacy has been almost entirely defined by this mistake, and a harshly negative and cold narrative concerning his death has eclipsed the reality of who he was and the life he led prior to his last moments.  He’s been caricatured by some to the world as an undisciplined “cowboy” pilot who ran amok.  The truth of Mike Freyholtz is considerably more complex.

Mike was not a reckless aviator.  In fact, he was one of the most precise and exacting pilots in the Air Force, and one of the most talented and capable warriors of his generation.  I met him when he arrived to his first operational assignment, fresh from pilot training and still wearing the bars of a Lieutenant.  As an instructor, I worked directly with this newly minted copilot and saw his promising potential immediately.  He prepared meticulously.  He divided his training flights into segments, events, and contingencies, and methodically prepared for each in detail that stunned and impressed his crewmates.  I recall conducting a pre-brief before taking him into the local traffic pattern for routine approach practice; he showed up for that briefing with detailed drawings of each of his planned approaches, with altitudes, distances, airspeeds, and configurations calculated in arduous detail.  This was exceptional preparation, and it made him an exceptional pilot from the very start.  A little over a year later, his work ethic and planning prowess made him a sought-after copilot for missions heading into incredibly demanding airfields in Afghanistan.  His aptitude and work ethic kept him consistently ahead of the aircraft and helped him serve as a risk mitigator for relatively inexperienced aircraft commanders flung into a steeply challenging environment very different from the one for which they’d been trained.  From the day his wings were pinned to the day he died, Mike Freyholtz was a disciplined and superior pilot admired by all who shared his craft.

Yet, many have compared Mike to Lieutenant Colonel Arthur “Bud” Holland, the B-52 pilot whose notorious ego and well-documented contempt for the rules culminated in the catastrophic loss of his aircraft and crew in another airshow-related accident in 1994.  This comparison is inaccurate and unfair.  Holland broke the rules, was called out for it by commanders at multiple levels, and refused to come into compliance.   Holland was interested not in pushing his aircraft to its operating limits, but in proving that those limits didn’t apply to him because he was a better pilot than any other.  He protested when he was critiqued, and his commanders deferred inappropriately to his expertise, failing to clip his wings when they should clearly have done so.  Mike Freyholtz also broke the rules.  He developed and implemented a demonstration profile that contained violations of safe performance parameters.  Over time, he and crewmates came to accept violations of the rules as routine and acceptable.  Mike ignored warnings and indications that he had come to see as temporary anomalies in the push to take the aircraft to its design limits. But in Mike’s case, no one stepped in to correct him.  No one challenged or contended with what he was doing.  It appears as though the responsible commanders who might have done so were aloof to his behavior and those who flew with him trusted his expertise more than was appropriate or safe. 

But those who knew Mike Freyholtz understand that had his commanders yanked on the reigns, he would have quickly come to heel.  He wasn’t unruly.  He was a good officer and team player who would have appreciated the correction and complied with it.  He likely would have reflected on it, incorporated the lesson into his own leadership repertoire, and emerged stronger than before.  But he would not have defied the rules consciously because he was not bent on breaking them; he was off track, and needed someone to show him the error of his ways.  There’s no evidence anyone ever did, and this demonstrates a clear and glaring contrast between Mike Freyholtz — a disciplined and talented but misguided pilot who devolved into unsafe practices by lack of supervision — and Bud Holland, a rule-breaker who was unsafe by conscious choice.

But this isn’t the only contrast between them.  Unlike Holland, Freyholtz had a superb record of war service.  He was decorated for aerial achievement in combat, and didn’t get those medals for baking cookies at the USO.  He risked his life for his country and did so with distinction. Mike logged more than 600 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, operating under threat in demanding conditions to keep ground forces sustained.  His leadership as an aircraft commander was remarkable, as he consistently pushed through obstacles to execute missions others might have found cause to avoid.  On one occasion, Mike and his crew accepted a mid-air re-route to Balad Air Base, Iraq, where they rapidly unloaded and reconfigured their C-17 for an emergency aeromedical mission.  Within two hours of receiving the original call, he had orchestrated an in-flight divert to a safe landing, dropped off cargo, picked up patients, filed a new flight plan, and had his aircraft airborne, bound for Germany rather than his original destination in northern Iraq.  His crew was credited with saving the lives of three critically wounded soldiers. Rather than terminating his mission in the cozy confines of Europe, he requested a waiver to fly an extra hour beyond the normal maximum duty day; when the waiver was approved, he and his crew returned to Balad, picked up their original cargo, and completed their mission as originally planned.  Mike had the wisdom to know that delivering his cargo was important to those waiting for it, and might even preclude the need for another medevac. He did his duty, which he saw requiring much more than bare-minimum exertion.

This is one example of countless.  He always adapted, pushed through, motivated his team, disciplined himself to rest, study, and exercise, and always looked for a way to “solve for yes” and channel his love of flying into the fulfillment of his duty.  Mike was typical of his generation of airlifters, routinely doing things that are exceptional by any historical standard and doing them in the most hazardous conditions seen by the airlift mission since WWII, but making them look easy.  But they aren’t easy, and shouldn’t ever be taken for granted. Mike deserves to have us all remember that they weren’t easy when we recall his life and his death.  Let these anecdotes substitute for the twelve years of celebration and recognition Mike never received; recognition which, had it occurred, might have given us a different lens with which to process the fateful errors he made in the end.

But Mike wasn’t just a good pilot.  He was actually a great officer, too.  As a young captain at Charleston Air Force Base, he developed a training presentation that taught his squadron mates how to utilize a new terrain avoidance system to operate more safely in the low altitude environment.  His techniques were adopted by deployed squadrons to help get C-17s in and out of the Bagram and Kandahar airfields in bad weather with an improved safety margin. At the time, this was a massive difference maker in our ability to support joint partners. Later, while leading wing training programs at McChord Air Force Base, Mike spearheaded the use of simulator rehearsal as a risk management tool.  At that time, McChord’s experience level had diminished sharply against a huge increase in combat workload as operations in Iraq intensified.  New airfields were opening up so frequently that pilots were commonly being sent into unfamiliar environments, often with poor lighting and subpar instrumentation; these were unavoidable realities of the hastily assembled operating plans of the time.  Mike saw promise in sending deploying pilots into the simulator and having them fly practice approaches to these new fields as a way to proxy for the experience they lacked.  He got a lot of pushback from squadron leaders (myself included; at the time, I couldn’t see the wisdom in what he was doing and didn’t want any new requirements levied on my pilots), but he persisted, eventually persuading squadron leaders to go into the simulator and see his idea for themselves.  They did, and were instantly convinced. This type of familiarization training quickly became a staple of pre-deployment preparation across McChord at a time when every possible risk management measure was needed.  There is no doubt in my mind that his leadership prevented mishaps and mission failures.  Before he committed his own safety compromises, Mike actually helped prevent them in others.

In considering how Mike met his end, it’s also important to consider how he began.  Mike’s most formative years as a pilot were coincident with the response to 9/11.  In the USAF airlift community, that meant a considerable shift toward greater risk acceptance.  As airlift leaders grappled to exploit the full capability of their weapon systems (especially the C-17, which by 2001 had come to represent the spine of US airlift capacity), they necessarily pushed for innovation, ingenuity, and calculated risk-taking.  They told their pilots to stop looking for ways to turn down missions and start looking for ways to get them done.  At Charleston, this push actually started before 9/11, when visionary leaders took the reigns at the base and recognized the crew force was not moving forcefully enough to develop or implement tactics capitalizing on the C-17’s unique blend of capabilities.

And thank goodness that push started when it did, given that Charleston’s airlifters formed much of the core of the critically important initial US response in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks.  But this also meant that young pilots like Mike Freyholtz would traverse their initial assignments, and their formative years as aviators, with an idiosyncratically permissive view of risk as weighed against mission necessity.  Mike’s generation have been combat pilots their entire careers.  Mike was taught to take calculated risks; in fact, he was taught that this was the necessary mindset for a successful pilot.  He, along with his generation, carried that mindset into the next decade of operations.  Their “solve for yes” mindset is the reason Air Mobility Command has been able to operate at a sustained surge level on an indefinite basis.  It’s also inescapably part of the explanation for many mishaps.  Sometimes, leaning forward a little too far causes us to fall over.  Mike leaned forward a little too far in the months leading to July 28th, 2010.  On that fateful day, he fell over.

He’s not alone.  Others have leaned forward to accept missions into airfields that were not acceptable, through weather that was un-flyable, or into challenging conditions for which they were not sufficiently rested or prepared.  Most often, they’ve adapted and overcome.  Occasionally, they’ve fallen over.  The Air Force’s safety culture tends to publicly personalize losses of aircraft to those making the errors most proximate to the final catastrophe.  This seldom explains what really happened.  Each mishap has a story, and these stories often include common themes like insidiously aggregated risk, poor or absent leadership, a breakdown in mutual support, an improper safety climate or attitude, slippage in training or proficiency, or subpar planning and mission management at headquarters level.  These themes are seldom discussed publicly, and this diminishes the open communication that is key to safer operations.  It also leaves the survivors of those whose mistakes formed the terminus of the mishap story bearing an unfair and total burden.  Mike Freyholtz will forever be associated with the loss of his aircraft and his crewmates.  Perhaps if his memory didn’t have to bear the complete burden of that loss, there would be more space in his remembrance for the fact that he was, before the day he died, one of the most qualified and admired pilots in his community, a devoted father, a valued friend, a fantastic instructor with a scientific mind conditioned by an artistic impulse, and a hero who always leaned forward for his country. 

Mike would want us to learn everything possible from his death, and there is one essential lesson from the crash of Sitka 43 that applies universally: the importance of persistent and meaningful leader involvement.  When leaders focus improperly, fail to prioritize, grow aloof, trust without verifying, or suffer from overload such that they do not get and stay involved in the daily activities of their organizations, dysfunction is free to take root and grow.  Mike was a solid gold aviator whose bad habits took root and grew insidiously because no one in a position to doubt or check him noticed or took the right actions.

But the Air Force has always understood that no matter how hard a leader tries, the fluidity, velocity, and complexity of air operations will prevent a leader from catching every cue.  This is why the service has always championed a strong culture of mutual support, known colloquially as a wingman culture.  This type of organizational life rejects deference and hierarchy in favor of assertiveness.  It rejects passivity and acceptance in favor of questioning and curiosity.  It has always been understood that when leaders fail to notice, wingmen must be the failsafe.  When both fail, doom is inevitable, because humans are not naturally self-limiting creatures.  As a subset of humans, pilots are comparatively more prone to overconfidence since their job requires a high level of confidence; they are more prone to exceeding limits since their job requires pushing to the edge of limits. As a young officer, I had a squadron commander pound this point home, telling me “when you go it alone, you pay the price … and so does your wingman.”  He understood, as the Air Force always has, that aviation contains an embedded conflict between the need for teamwork and the impulse for soloist individuality.  This conflict must be held in careful balance for the balance between safety and mission accomplishment to be maintained.  This is why the service’s nascent embrace of a loyalty culture and unquestioning compliance mindset are deeply concerning; these things move airmen away from being good wingmen.

Indeed, despite earnest efforts, the Air Force has in recent years allowed its wingman culture to degrade precipitously.  This has happened because — along with the conscious or subconscious betrayal of its cultural roots — the service has been given to excessive tinkering with human resource processes, leaving squadrons insufficiently supported, resourced, unified, organized, or focused enough for leaders to work on creating the right climate and culture to support professional aviation.  The service has attempted to arrest this degradation with sloganeering.  It’s not working.  Much as Mike made mistakes that led to his demise, he was failed by his leaders and his wingmen.  Unless this lesson in internalized, the service is doomed to serially repeating it.

Mike Freyholtz’s journey is perhaps the ultimate pilot story.  He led a life characterized by method, precision, and repetition, but met his fate in a single moment that betrayed any sense of order or control. He endured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of exhilaration and danger.  Pilots spend much of their lives planning, only to learn that they don’t get to decide where the flight plan leads, or where it will terminate.  They celebrate freedom from the surly bonds of Earth, but in the end they long to be safely back on terra firma.  They enjoy pushing the boundaries of technology, but find its scientific limits constraining.  They dance with fortune and enjoy it, but forget how given fortune is to betrayal, and sudden that betrayal can be.  From the time he was knee high, Mike sought this life of fascinating contradictions and extremes.  History may find him guilty of loving flying just a little too much.  But it should also find him guilty of benevolence, spirit, and a special patriotism that arose from his twin infatuations with service to something greater than himself and beating the laws of physics at their own game.

But beyond exemplifying what it means to be an American pilot, Mike’s story reflects what it means to be human.  Great achievements coupled with profound mistakes.  The galactic highs of success pulled Earthward the gravity of failure.  Remarkable joy and immeasurable pain, punctuated by the suddenness of loss and the revelation that control is illusory, even for the most capable among us.

But we do get to choose how we remember our fallen.  To continue recalling Mike Freyholtz according to the shorthand explanations that attend to his last seconds of life is neither instructive nor just.  It does not uplift, which is one thing his story should do.  He was a tough, smart, gentle American hero who gave his life to his country, saved lives, advanced the cause of freedom, and enriched everyone around him. He was also, like all of us, flawed.  But his children, his surviving family, and the teammates he left behind deserve to look upon his memory and cherish what he gave unabashedly.  They deserve to smile upon him with the same ease he always smiled, even when the times were tough.  

This essay is a modest attempt to appropriately re-cast, in honest terms from which we can learn, the remembrance of one fallen veteran, and to invoke the honorable memory of countless fallen airmen represented in his story.  We’ll have to work very hard to deserve what they’ve given us.

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