On a wing and a prayer
While Americans worry about their troops overseas, they overlook the people who
are most often at risk
by Jody Ericson
Leah Melnick's death raises the question of just how safe American
civilians are on overseas missions. In a place like Bosnia, danger is a given,
but civilians working for such large, international agencies as the UN are, in
some ways, at even greater risk than the soldiers watching over them.
The aircraft that Melnick and 11 other international representatives were
flying in on September 17, 1997 was an aging Soviet-built Mi-8, a type of
helicopter that is not certified as air-worthy in any Western country. What's
more, the Ukrainian air force crew contracted to fly for the UN were carrying a
reserve fuel tank inside the passenger compartment of the Mi-8, in apparent
violation of the Russian manufacturer's rules.
The fuel ignited when the helicopter crashed into a mountainside in thick fog.
While all 12 passengers were killed, the four-member crew, separated by a wall
from the back compartment, managed to survive.
But most stunning is the fact that the UN, even after this accident and others
involving the Mi-8s, is still using the Soviet aircraft to transport civilians,
while UN military peacekeepers often fly in the most advanced helicopters.
According to one top UN official who does not wish to be identified, there is
also no guarantee that the pilots responsible for the crash in Bosnia will not
fly for the UN again.
"They went back to the Ukraine. We don't know what's happening to them," says
the official. "Will they force [the pilot] to leave the military? Will he find
a job flying? I honestly don't know."
Jarat Chopra, director of international relations at Brown University's Watson
Institute for International Studies, explains the problem. The UN, he says, is
caught in a complex web of international politics that makes it difficult to
hold the countries it contracts with accountable. On any given mission, "each
country considers itself supremely powerful," says Chopra, and "is usually
given a certain amount of immunity."
As a result, UN officials do not have the authority to dictate rules or
standards of safety to the governments that provide services on peacekeeping
missions. Instead, they must rely almost completely on these contractors to
ensure the safety of UN civilians. "We presume that, in most cases, this
arrangement works out," says UN spokesman Hiro Ueki.
But according to Frank L. Jensen Jr., president emeritus of the
Alexandria, Virginia-based Helicopter Association International, the policy
amounts to "criminal negligence," particularly since the UN often deals with
countries without a recognized regulatory authority like the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA). "Who oversees the Ukrainian military? Probably no one,"
And yet the Ukraine and Russia are major players in such missions as Bosnia.
Hoping to put their excess troops and equipment to use after the Cold War, the
two governments, in a bid too low for the UN to refuse, landed two out of the
five contracts to employ military aircraft for transport in the Balkans, while
private companies from these two countries reeled in 50 percent of the
non-military helicopter work, according to a top UN source.
It's not that the former east bloc pilots aren't capable fliers, but their
standards -- and aviation philosophy -- are much different than the West's.
More daredevils than polished professionals, "they used to sit in the airport
all day and drink until it was time to fly," says William Stuebner, a former US
official in Bosnia who is now with the US Institute of Peace in Washington,
While the UN claims there were no serious air accidents in Bosnia during its
main mission from 1992 to '95, Stuebner, a 20-year Army veteran, attributes
this to luck rather than a concern for safety, as he can recall plenty of close
There was the time Stuebner's plane started taxiing down the runway in
Sarajevo with its door open and ladder dragging, for instance. "They suddenly
stopped...and up came the navigator," he says. "He was wearing shower shoes,
jeans, a black T-shirt, and was unshaven." Clearly suffering from a hangover,
the man promptly unfolded a cot and went to sleep.
The former east bloc pilots are also known for cutting corners in terms of
maintenance. "Because the former Soviet Union was always hurting, they are used
to holding things together with Band-Aids," Stuebner explains. As a result, the
Russian helicopters they fly in have become discernably more fragile over the
To Jensen, a former Army helicopter pilot with two tours in Vietnam, the UN
has just one option -- to use pilots and helicopters only from those countries
with a regulatory authority like the FAA. But even US officials are hesitant to
make this kind of demand -- or to push contracting countries like the Ukraine
to clean up their act.
After all, how can the US cast a stone at the UN, asks one government
source, when it owes the international agency more than a billion dollars in
dues? "We're under constant pressure from Congress to cut costs," he says. "The
UN is on the desperate side of equipment, so they don't turn away willing
As one UN official points out, the UN is really "185 countries." And he and
his co-workers merely carry out these nations' collective wishes, which include
contracting with the lowest bidder. "If they give us a wooden spoon to dig out
the dessert," he says, "we take the wooden spoon."
For now, Leah Melnick's parents wait for word on the official cause of last
September's crash. According to several sources, the UN has completed its
report on the accident, and released its findings last month to the various
governments involved, including the US State Department. Still, we may never
know what really happened that day in Bosnia because such "internal documents"
as reports by the UN's Board of Inquiry, says Ueki, "are never made public."
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