They called it "dozing for dollars." Pilots with the California Air National Guard 144th Fighter Wing based in Fresno had a lucrative arrangement: After their normal day jobs flying F-16 Fighting Falcon warplanes, they often grabbed shifts on alert at full pay.
Alert duty is akin to what firefighters do at the station house, waiting for an alarm to sound. Pilots must be available to "scramble" intercept enemy air attacks, or intervene in another emergency.
They wait for the call in a ready room near their jets, surfing the Web, working out, eating, talking with colleagues, watching TV or sleeping hence the "dozing" moniker used half in jest by some Guard members.
Alert duty helped some of the Fresno pilots boost their annual salaries by tens of thousands of dollars. But in the process, going back to at least 2008 they violated U.S. law and military regulations against "double dipping" more than one payday on the same calendar day according to a recent federal audit.
A Bee investigation found that the Fresno payment practices likely started years earlier and that the pilots are the subject of a criminal investigation by the federal Air Force Office of Special Investigations. That agency declined to provide details about its probe.
"There is at a minimum an appearance that (commanders) self-enriched," said Col. John Crocker, governmental and public affairs director for the California Guard. "And boy, does that smell bad."
The audit showed pilots also earned full pay for standby shifts spent at home with their families, asleep in their own beds, or on vacation if they could have returned to base within 12 hours.
No attacks are publicly known on the West Coast in recent decades, although Guard pilots sometimes scramble to enforce a no-fly zone during a presidential visit, check on a plane that veers from its flight plan, or respond to an airborne distress call. Such events might occur as often as a few times a month, although months sometimes pass without an alert.
Standby pilots are rarely called in.
Crocker said all payments suspected as improper have ended.
Pilot work schedules, obtained by The Bee, also suggest that to gain so many alert shifts, all of the audited pilots routinely violated rules for "crew rest" recognized by other units of the nation's air defense system. The rules are designed to ensure that pilots can respond safely and with optimum skill. Serving on alert duty while fatigued increases the risk of pilot error, jeopardizing human lives, costly planes and the defense mission itself.
All the pilots under investigation are officers with a rank of at least captain.
As commander of the 144th Fighter Wing, Col. Gary Taylor oversaw the unit. He recently was relieved of his command. Taylor was paid about $268,000 last year and was on pace to earn $316,000 this year more than double his annual salary. In 2008 and 2009 he received $43,622 in performance and retention bonuses. Taylor got additional pay for food and housing.
Auditors estimated that more than 40 percent of his recent income was improper. Taylor did not respond to Bee requests for an interview.
Brig. Gen. Jonathan Flaugher, former assistant adjutant general for the state Guard and Taylor's predecessor as wing commander, was in line to become commander of the entire state Air Guard. After the Fresno audit, he was placed on paid administrative leave, then assigned to a job outside the chain of command. Flaugher declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation.
Six other pilots implicated in the pay problems were grounded indefinitely as of late September. Their names were not released by Guard officials, and did not appear in the audit.
"From a criminal standpoint, we'll have to wait and see," Crocker said, referring to the legality of pilot actions. He added, "From a leadership standpoint, there is no waiting and seeing."
A loss of faith
Brig. Gen. Mary J. Kight, the California Guard's top commander, "lost full faith and confidence in Taylor's leadership skills," Crocker said. She relieved him of command effective July 28, and he resigned from his job as a full-time Guard pilot. Taylor remains a traditional part-time Guard member.
Crocker said Flaugher's possible culpability in the fighter wing's payment problems, or receipt of improper payments, are a subject of the criminal probe. Depending on its outcome, he said, Flaugher's role in the Guard and possible elevation to Air Guard chief could be reconsidered.
The problems were limited to "technicians" federal civilian pilots who work full time for the Guard, and also serve as part-time Guard officers.
Auditors stumbled across the payment irregularities while at the Fresno unit for an unrelated audit. They examined records for six of the unit's eight technician pilots and found 257 potential violations of federal laws, U.S. comptroller general decisions and military regulations in just the first three months of this year. They recommended recoupment of $110,000 for that period.
Crocker acknowledged that suspect payments might have gone back several years. If so, the amount paid improperly to fliers could reach into the millions of dollars.
The grounded pilots might have been confused about the laws and rules, and relied on guidance from Flaugher and Taylor, he said.
Confusion was apparent in a memo to the National Guard Bureau written by Lt. Col. Victor S. Sikora, a squadron commander and pilot. The bureau, a federal agency, sets overarching Guard policy and monitors federal funding in all U.S. states and territories. Its auditors examined the Fresno issues.
State Guard officials would not release Sikora's memo but allowed The Bee to view it. He wrote that the payments challenged by auditors had occurred for "decades," at least as far back as the early 1970s.
Sikora wrote that ending dual payments for single calendar days would be "destructive to morale and not sustainable." He regarded one day of pay for alert duty that might last 16 to 24 hours as insufficient financial incentive to get pilots to sign up for the shifts.
Sikora declined to discuss the matter with The Bee.
Kight herself served as the Air Guard's second highest officer during part of Flaugher's tenure as wing commander. Crocker said he did not believe Kight would be questioned by investigators, in part because she was not in a position to review relevant pay records at that time.
Kight responded swiftly when the issue came to light, Crocker said.
On July 19, she ordered a compensation review for the 144th Air Wing, and on Aug. 17 extended the review to all Guard units. Those assessments are still in process, but no similar "dual compensation" problems have yet come to light, according to Maj. Thomas Keegan, a Guard spokesman.
On Aug. 26, Kight and Maj. Gen. Dennis G. Lucas, then-commander of the California Air National Guard, ordered an investigation of what might have gone wrong in the 144th. That probe was halted when the state Guard was notified that a criminal investigation was under way.
On Aug. 27 Kight sent a memorandum to all Guard members, reminding them of their duty to serve in an ethical manner.
"The money is less of an issue than the leadership, in my book," Crocker said. "And General Kight fixed that."
Money over safety?
Buried within the audit, which focused on the payments to pilots, was another vital issue: safety and security.
F-16s are complex fighter-bombers with a top speed of 1,500 miles per hour. The experience of flying an F-16 can be exhilarating, pilots say.
The plane's bubble top permits nearly 360-degree visibility. Its computer-aided throttle provides power with the lightest touch like driving a high performance race car, but with higher stakes.
The F-16 is a killing machine that can carry bombs and missiles. A six-barrel cannon can shoot enemy fighters out of the sky.
Fresno Guard pilots who step into an F-16 cockpit might risk their lives or carry in their hands the survival of others and the safety of California territory.
It takes up to two years to qualify to fly the $25 million plane, and even expert pilots sometimes have trouble. Hundreds of F-16s have crashed or suffered other significant mishaps in the last two decades often due to pilot error.
"Crew rest is critical, because pilot safety is at stake," wrote Lt. Col. Susan A. Romano, a spokeswoman for First Air Force, the lead agency for most alert activities nationwide, in response to questions from The Bee. She added that the military works to ensure that "aviators are properly rested to perform in challenging and potentially deadly environments."
Accordingly, nationwide crew-rest rules, designed to minimize human errors, generally bar pilots from flying if they have not had adequate time to sleep and rejuvenate. That means stints of flight duty of up to 12 hours followed by at least 12 hours of down time. That down time is supposed to include eight hours that afford the opportunity to sleep.
The 144th has not lost any planes in recent years attributed to pilot fatigue, and the auditors did not comment on crew rest.
But a Bee examination of the Fresno pilots' daily calendars within the audit shows that in order to earn so much extra pay, their combination of civilian pilot duties and military alert duties routinely exceeded the 12-hour flight-duty limit.
During the first three months of this year, pilots exceeded 12-hour flight duty limits at least 38 times. Taylor exceeded those limits 10 times, audit records show.
All of those occasions followed the form of Taylor's schedule on March 8: He worked a pilot's normal day shift, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., then immediately went on alert duty until midnight.
Under military rules, his 12-hour flight duty limit would end at 7:30 p.m. This would have placed him in violation of crew-rest rules from 7:30 p.m. until midnight.
He could still be available to fly under special circumstances, such as when another pilot calls in sick, or during an emergency that requires extra resources. In such cases, a pilot or commander normally must notify and receive approval from higher headquarters, including First Air Force.
The agency's Romano said those requests are classified for security reasons.
That schedule was repeated every week during the three-month audit period, in some cases up to five times, and included all six audited pilots.
Discussions with Air Guard leaders in California and other states showed stark disagreement about how to apply crew-rest standards to pilots who protect U.S. airspace.
"Crew rest is sacrosanct," acknowledged Crocker, the California governmental affairs official and a pilot who said he formerly served on alert for nuclear bombers. But alert duty is a special case, he said.
Pay issues aside, scheduling a pilot to take an alert shift just after normal daytime pilot duty would not violate crew-rest regulations, according to Crocker. He said that understanding is shared by all 18 Air Sovereignty Alert sites across the nation.
But Lt. Col. Charles Merkel, operations officer for the alert site in Madison, Wis., said in an interview that crew-rest rules prohibit a regular eight-hour pilot shift followed by eight hours of alert duty. That schedule would not be allowed at his site, except in an emergency or other exceptional circumstances.
Col. Peter Stavros, vice commander of the 159th Fighter Wing, Louisiana Air National Guard, was even more emphatic: Pilots coming off the day shift would not serve on alert duty immediately afterward.
Given the disagreement about application of the rules, The Bee contacted Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and First Air Force. The questions were referred to the federal National Guard Bureau. The bureau referred all crew-rest questions back to the California Guard.
Litany of problems
The problems in the 144th Fighter Wing come at a challenging time for the Guard.
In October, a Bee investigation found evidence of up to $100 million in improper or illegal bonuses and student loan repayments for California Army National Guard members. The story sparked scrutiny from elected officials, the National Guard Bureau and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The incentive programs are also the subject of a broad criminal investigation by the Justice Department, FBI and other federal agencies.
Financial improprieties in the National Guard are not unique to California. For example, in recent years, the Texas National Guard has weathered a major scandal involving pay for its top leaders.
But the recent issues in California prompted the National Guard Bureau to launch a nationwide examination of fraud in recruiting-incentive payments. In late October, Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the bureau, added dual compensation, as in the Fresno situation, and tuition assistance programs to the 50-state review.
Citing "the urgency and potential severity of these issues," McKinley asked all National Guard programs to make the inquiries "your No. 1 priority between now and the end of the calendar year," with final reports due Jan. 7.
Even ahead of that deadline, problematic incentive payments recently were found in Nevada, according to an audit report obtained by The Bee.
A new problem also emerged in California. A federal audit shows that up to $1.9 million in subsidies for more than 1,300 college courses taken by Army Guard members since 2007 might have to be recouped. No passing grades were reported to certify course completion, a requirement of the aid.