[Sidebar] July 23 - 30, 1998


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," says Jensen.

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, DC.

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 calls.

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 years.

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 donors."

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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