Public Eye: Troubled California Guard wing gets an overhaul

Troubled Guard wing gets an overhaul

The California National Guard's troubled 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno is undergoing sweeping changes to improve its operations and ethical culture, according to its new leader.

"Every so often you see a wing that really steps in it," said Col. Sami Said, the new wing commander, appointed last month. "Over an entire career you see it maybe two or three times."

Said was referring to problems described in a series of Bee investigations since December, involving allegedly improper double- and triple-dipping – more than one day's pay for a single workday – by the wing's leading pilots. In the process, the pilots also routinely violated "crew rest" rules designed to safeguard the wing's primary mission – defense of U.S. airspace.

A number of pilots have been removed from the chain of command and grounded. They are subjects of a federal criminal investigation into the pay problems. Said pledged to report the probe's outcome publicly, and plans to ensure that "the culture and the checks and balances (are) so strong that such practices cannot take place, cannot go unnoticed."

Adding to the wing's challenges, just prior to Said's arrival it received marginal grades for an important readiness inspection. Afterward, all of its pilots were relieved from airspace alert flights for about a month by Maj. Gen. Garry C. Dean, a top U.S. air defense commander. The pilots, excluding those implicated in the pay issues, recently returned to alert duties.

Eight to 10 primary inspection areas showed significant deficiencies that "did not meet Air Force standards," along with many other smaller problems, according to Said.

Calling the results "unacceptable," Said added that technical, procedural and cultural issues have improved under his direction. Pay irregularities and crew rest problems have been rectified, he said, praising the skill and integrity of the vast majority of the wing's staff. Forthcoming drills will test operational improvements.

When the compensation issues emerged last fall, two top leaders were removed from the chain of command. But other implicated pilots were assigned to command roles despite being grounded and under criminal investigation. Said removed those pilots, including the former interim wing commander, Col. James L. McKoane, from the chain of command.

Col. Gary Taylor, the former wing commander who was removed when the problems and allegations came to light, recently filed a claim against the Guard for at least $14 million in damages. He contended that his career was derailed by false accusations of wrongdoing by Guard officers quoted in a Bee story. An official said the Guard would not comment on a pending legal matter.

Adjutant General David S. Baldwin, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April, said his top priority for the wing is safe operations and effective defense of U.S. airspace. Baldwin said he expects Said to "put this wing on the glide path to becoming the best wing in the U.S. Air Force."

– Charles Piller