Molly Hangover: Pilots Still Grounded After Being Cleared of Drug Use

Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, Commander of Air Education and Training Command. Photo: Air Force.

Just before Christmas, a trio of pilots at Laughlin Air Force Base got what appeared to be a cherished gift from the Air Force. When they got around to unwrapping it, the gift turned out to be an ornately wrapped box containing a few shreds of their stolen dignity and not much else.

After an inquiry into disciplinary proceedings that had falsely accused them of drug use, the “Molly Three” had been cleared of those charges. A press release from Air Education and Training Command (AETC) said “the three pilots whose aeronautical orders were permanently revoked have been reinstated.” Private reassurances from the highest levels of the service reinforced their belief that the worst was over. No matter what other administrative or legal hurdles remained, they would at least be able to get back to work.

The press release was a misrepresentation. They haven’t been reinstated. While the paperwork licensing them to fly may have been accomplished, they’re not flying.

Two of the pilots have been given follow-on assignments to fly other aircraft. In the interim, they’re not being re-qualified as instructor pilots. Instead, they’ve been told they’ll be “First Pilots” … a probationary status requiring that they fly only under supervision.

Even this downgrade is contingent on “available resources,” meaning commanders are free to neglect the two if there’s any higher priority to address. Given they won’t be students or instructors, there will, by definition, always be a higher priority, so this is basically a recipe for being serially bumped off the schedule. 

There’s no way to see this but as an additional punishment. The two are not being restored to the status quo ante as involved legislators were assured would be the case. Instead, they’re being set up to fail when they report to initial qualification training for their operational assignments. Beyond the individual implications, this is also irresponsible stewardship. Operational units and their supporting schoolhouses deserve better from AETC than the provision of two unqualified pilots who will struggle to succeed before being fed into undermanned units doing the service’s heavy lifting downrange.

This additional punishment is being handed down by Lt. Gen. Daryl Roberson, commander of AETC. He’s imposing the limitation on the grounds that the two officers, despite not being drug users, are still on the disciplinary hook for separate conduct substantiated in a different process that unfolded in parallel with Miley Gate. His judgment is that based on this separate conduct, they shouldn’t be instructors in his command.

But there are at least two problems with this.

First, the separate conduct he’s considering (which we’ll cover in much more detail in a forthcoming investigative report) was not the reason they were grounded in the first place. They were removed from flying status after Col. Brian Hastings falsely accused them of drug use based on their private text messages and then reprimanded them for it when it was clear the allegations couldn’t be proven in court. Without the drug accusations and Hastings’ manipulation of their aeronautical orders based on the “unprofessional” text messages, they’d still be instructor pilots.

Second, others found culpable for similar misconduct (and worse — to include direct participation in substantiated unprofessional relationships) are still flying as instructor pilots at Laughlin. 

For the third member of the Molly Three, the situation is even more punitive. He isn’t being permitted to fly at all. Roberson has barred him from the cockpit while he awaits a discharge that was approved under a voluntary drawdown program before he was falsely tarred by Hastings.

That discharge is in turn being held up until the final disposition of a non-judicial punishment proceeding that was undertaken after the reprimand for drug use was issued. We’ll share much more about this aspect of the story later, but for the now it’s enough to understand is that the Article 15 is contested, arises from conduct not nearly serious enough to trigger a loss of flight qualification, and is under review at the highest level of the Air Force.

What this all means is that the officer shouldn’t be grounded at all, but that he’s being kept in personal and professional limbo and unable to even begin rebuilding until the bureaucratic needle twitches. He’s a pilot who can’t fly looking down the barrel of a discharge he requested on the basis of flying-related employment prospects.

Astonishingly, Roberson took the additional step of adding a fourth officer to his target list as a result of the review. An officer who received Article 15 punishment last year for conduct unrelated to Miley Gate — and who has long since served his punishment and begun rehabilitating his career — was summarily stripped of his instructor qualification and put on orders to a non-flying assignment. He’s been told the actions are based on the conduct for which he was already punished.

Since the conclusion of his disciplinary process nearly a year ago, this officer has logged more than 230 instructor hours on more than 100 student sorties and been voted “best instructor” by one graduating class.

As for Hastings, he hasn’t been publicly subjected to any consequences for having railroaded three officers based on bare suspicions that have now been proven completely unfounded. His actions in this trio of cases epitomize abuse of power, yet he’s thus far been spared, with the AETC press release claiming, dubiously, that “it was determined the investigations and subsequent administrative actions taken by Air Force leadership with regard to the pilots were both within their scope of authority and followed due process of law.”

This is a classic attempt to have it both ways, with a review finding mistakes but refusing to assign agency or blame for those mistakes. Why is the service intent on these legal and administrative acrobatics?

It’s probably not for the sake of doing Hastings any favors, as some have suggested. Speculatively, it’s about preserving the legitimacy of Hastings’ overall disciplinary approach and the rules he used to justify that approach, because he did what he did as a representative of the Air Force, its senior officials, and its justice system.

The Air Force is trying desperately to save face, maintain credibility, and stave off challenges to the legitimacy of its legal system after having turned over some rocks and found some disturbing violations and overreaches by commanders. To do this, it must spare Hastings … because if he’s shown to be wrong, many new cans of worms will be opened. And if he can’t be wrong, then the Molly Three can’t be right.

None of this is right, appropriate, or fair. None of it honors the facts. None of it affirms the service’s values or respects the rules it expects everyone to follow. None of it takes notice of why and how Hastings departed rational orbit in his well-meaning attempt to clean up a mess he inherited from his predecessor.

Because it refuses to register the appropriate lessons, the Air Force and AETC can’t expect to grow from the process. And in the process of avoiding those tough lessons, the Air Force and AETC are creating injustice as a by-product.

The service is also breaching public trust in a new and deeply damaging way. Airmen far and wide — including me — hailed the pre-Christmas decision to restore the Molly Three to flying status as an important first step in rebuilding faith and restoring trust between senior leaders and the ordinary airmen. The fact it now looks like little more than an attempt to grab some favorable headlines without following through is doubly injurious.

I reached out to Rep. Duncan Hunter’s office for comment. His chief of staff, Joe Kasper, offered the following via email:

“Right out of the gate, Gen. Welsh did the right thing, by kick-starting a review and then recognizing these pilots were falsely accused of something they didn’t do.  So he restored their aeronautical orders, which was important, but that action should represent a broader effort, resonating across all levels of command, to make things right for the pilots involved.  Right now, it sounds like there’s a lot of nonsense that’s happening locally, maybe because leaders don’t want to deal with the situation or they have allegiances to the people who created this mess in the first place.  Regardless, we are going to need Gen. Welsh to see this through, and ensure these pilots are put back in the air, since they were grounded because of accusations that couldn’t be substantiated.  I can tell you that as it involves Representative Hunter, he’s not going away until the Air Force makes this right, all the way.  And if that means being a thorn in somebody’s side for quite a long time, then he’ll do that.  I think  Gen. Welsh is still committed to seeing this situation through, and he’ll make good on his intentions, which were expressed clearly to both Representatives Hunter and Kinzinger.  But what happens next will determine a lot about the Air Force’s true intentions.”  

Kasper’s right. What matters now is whether Welsh follows through and forces AETC to obey the results of the review. Reinstatement to a lesser status, refused reinstatement due to bureaucratic excuses, and the stripping of others’ wings to create the retroactive illusion of consistency … each of these is a perversion of the process Gen. Welsh ordered. Each of them uses these individuals to advance an Air Force narrative, ignoring their entitlement to basic fairness.

Contrary to how things looked a couple of weeks ago, we’re not done reporting on this story. The apparent betrayal undertaken by Roberson and his lawyers has galvanized the Laughlin community around setting the record straight, and many who were previously unwilling to speak out are now doing so.

What you’ve heard about this mess so far is the tip of a very ugly and huge iceberg. The actions of Col. Hastings, his superiors, and lawyers at all levels are overdue for additional scrutiny — the scrutiny many mistakenly believed would arise from the Air Force’s own review. What senior officials — to include Welsh himself — knew about Col. Hastings’ actions, when they knew it, and what they did/n’t do about it … is also a subject of particular interest.

The Air Force has had a chance to abridge this sad story by tearing some of the more unfortunate pages out and writing a new story … a better one about doing the right thing, accepting the loss of face, punishing the actual wrongdoers no matter their ranks or positions, and learning important lessons for the future. Unless Welsh and Roberson change course, that better story will never be written. We’ll be stuck telling a much more regrettable tale instead.

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