In a recent interview with Colonel (ret.) “Pappy” Russell, James T. Harris asked the former A-10 pilot about persistent rumors regarding Colonel (ret.) Martha McSally and her Air Force career. “Pappy,” born and raised in Arizona, and a graduate from the University of Arizona, now lives in CD2; the congressional district in which McSally is running for the second time.
McSally, who lost her bid for the district two years ago, is the Republican establishment candidate facing and is facing two challengers; Command Chief Master Sergeant (ret.) Chuck Wooten and McSally’s friend and former campaign manager Shelley Kais.
It is widely believed that McSally, used her experience as an A-10, to enlisted Kais to be her wingman in the campaign to take flak while McSally sails through the Republican Primary. The Republican establishment, under the leadership of senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, hand-picked McSally, a Rhode Island native, and provided a total makeover for McSally after the retirement of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
“Pappy” was invited on the Harris’s show, on 104.1FM KQTH, after Harris became aware of the growing concern in the A-10 pilot community about the narrative the McSally was crafting as part of her total makeover.
“Pappy” first met McSally almost 2 decades ago when he served as her superior officer and was assigned as an A-10 instructor in Tucson in the 355th training Wing at Davis Monthan. At the time, McSally was in an “upgrade” program, in which pilots acquire new skills or training.
Harris asked “Pappy” about McSally’s website and some posting that had “struck a nerve with him and other A-10 pilots, who had the same reaction to her version of history” The pilots were particularly disturbed by her account of the deaths of two A- 10 pilots Captain Craig Button and Captain Amy Svaboda.
McSally posted the following on her Facebook page:
17 years ago tonight I was leading a 4-ship flight of A-10s on a night vision goggle (NVG) tactical training mission on the Barry Goldwater Range west of Tucson. It was a very dark night with no horizon to tell up from down and NVGs were still fairly new for us. I turned and saw a fire on the ground on the range South of us, then heard the emergency call for help from the flight lead. After the shock and disbelief, I quickly discovered one of the A-10s had crashed and soon realized it was Capt Amy Svoboda’s plane since I heard each of the other pilots on the radio except for her.
I took over as on-scene commander for the search and rescue while her flight lead went to air refuel. We hoped she had ejected before the crash. Over and over I called her on the radio and got silence in return and we looked all over through our NVGs for any signs of life. We hit bingo fuel and had to fly back to DM not knowing her fate–a very lonely and quiet flight. We found out the next morning that she had perished.
Amy was an exceptional officer and pilot who was respected and loved by many. I got used to being the only female after transitioning into fighters, so it was great to have a “wingwoman” in the squadron when she arrived. Her death cut short a promising career and full life. She served faithfully and honorably, and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Her family remains in Tucson and they are in my thoughts and prayers today and so often in these last 17 years since that dark night.
McSally has frequently used the deaths of Button and Svaboda, according to pilots, to “gain glory” and sympathy.
“Pappy” said of McSally’s posting, “There’s very little there that truly happened, because I was intimately involved with both of those events. The first was an accident that directly affected my life, because I was going through a requalification course in the A-10 and had been told by the squadron that I would be not deploying with the unit. However, the unfortunate mishap came about that resulted in the death of Captain Amy Svaboda, so I was told I needed to start gearing up for my deployment.”
“Pappy” was sent to Kuwait in place of the deceased Svaboda. “I know all the details of what happened that night,” said “Pappy” on the night of Svaboda’s death, when her plane crashed in the Arizona desert . “They were on, what is called, the south tac, which is the tactical range out near Gila Bend.” “Pappy” said that the survivors in Svaboda’s crew that night “were supposed to deploy as well, but they were held back in order to be interviewed by accident investigators. They eventually did rejoin us in Kuwait, after their interviews have been completed and they were no longer needed. They came over on a commercial flight and rejoined us in Kuwait. We spent the next three months, or so, going over the events of that evening. At no time during our conversations did McSally’s name surface. In her post, she stated that she went over and took over scene command. As I said, at that time she was in an upgrade program meaning that even if she was airborne, which none of us recall, and I have contacted each of the individuals that were on the range that night. None of them can recall anything that she reveals in that story as being accurate or truthful.”
“The story about going over and taking charge while you were in an upgrade is not believable to somebody with my experience. Therefore, it is my opinion, that that is not accurate,” said “Pappy.” He continued, “I have led many large formations, and if something like that had occurred, and had I been the instructor of record on that flight, I would’ve taken on scene command. I would not allow an upgrade pilot to take command. I would have used them as perhaps a radio relay, or not at all. I might have just sent them home. I don’t know, it depends on the situation, but I talked to the pilot who she claims called for her assistance and he has no recollection that that ever occurred.”
“Pappy” continued, “So it just strikes me strikes me as odd that you would use a tragic event like that – to place glory on yourself – I don’t understand that. Especially with the facts revealed there (her website) were not those, that are shared by” the people “that were particularly involved with the incident and those associated with it. In my case I became very close to all of those members e because I spent the next several months with them over in Kuwait flying combat missions.”
By the time “Pappy” returned to Davis Monthan, McSally had moved onto a different squadron.
Harris noted that as “Pappy” was recounting the death of Svaboda, he was emotional and clearly upset that “someone would steal that glory. That someone would ingratiate themselves into a tragic situation in order to gain sympathy.” Harris apologized to “Pappy” for taking him “back to a place that’s painful.”
Harris asked “Pappy” about another death that McSally has exploited; the apparent suicide of Captain Craig Button. Harris and “Pappy” discussed the “narrative here that McSally has created in order to promote herself and her career.” Harris said, “The hidden parts of McSally’s life speak to her character.”
There are very many hidden parts to McSally’s life. She has refused to participate in debates and interviews; instead her handlers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on commercials sharing her narrative and new makeover with the low information voters of CD2.
Those low information voters, who have relied on the Republican establishment and McSally for information, have likely heard of the death of Captain Button and her close relationship to him. However, according to “Pappy” the two pilots were not close. “Once again it appears, in my opinion, to be an opportunity McSally to inject herself in a tragedy. I was called in when this happened,” referring to Button’s death, “about a month before Captain Svaboda’s death. I was called in to the command post immediately to be part of the crisis action team and start trying to reconstruct what happened to Capt. Craig Button.”
The investigation included asking why we believe, he did what we believe he did. What we think happened. He was caring 500 pound bombs. What his track was. Part of that, was trying to establish what his character was. What would cause him to do something like this. Part of that, is interviewing his friends. So I had the opportunity to speak to many of his classmates in his initial qualification course, at which time I was asked by those individuals who is this person,” referring to McSally, who had appeared out of nowhere it seemed and claimed a friendship with Button. “I said, well at least she claims to be a very good very close friend of Captain Button’s, and that’s why she was involved in the story now. But they had never heard of her. I’ve been through plenty of upgrade programs in my life and one thing that you do very much, is socially and professionally interact a great deal with your classmates.”
“Pappy’ said that if Button and McSally had been close friends, Button’s friends would have known. “In my opinion, they were of an age, where they would have attended the Academy at the same time. So they may have been acquaintances, I have no idea, but she was certainly not, according to his classmates, involved in any activities that were going on in that beginning A- 10 pilot course.”
Harris asked “Pappy” about McSally’s strange participation in the Svoboda and Button funerals. “Pappy” said, “Yes, she sang… I know that when she sang at Captain Svaboda’s funeral it greatly upset the other members of the fighter squadron, that she had been associated with, because I spent the next few months talking with them about that. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Captain Svaboda. All I can tell you, is what was related to me by her squadron mates. She was very highly respected. She was missed greatly, but never in the conversation did McSally’s name surface. And there was no positive reaction, but they were close friends allegedly.”
Harris asked “Pappy” if he was at the funeral. “Pappy” responded that he was there. Harris then asked if McSally can sing, to which “Pappy” responded, “I wasn’t listening I was too angry.”
Harris asked “Pappy” if it was true that McSally said that Alabamans have no teeth at her pinning ceremony at Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama. “That is the rumor,” said Pappy”. “That was going around, but I can’t substantiate it myself because I was not there in attendance. But as a previous colonel, who’s assignments are made by generals, they will normally pin based upon your capability to handle responsibilities at the level they’re confident you can handle. Her following assignment to Germany, indicates to me, in my opinion, that their trust in her capabilities to lead was somewhat diminished.”
“Pappy” continued, “In her capacity, (in Germany) she would have instructed about 140 students folks, for 12 week classes – not a lot of responsibility – not a lot of hard thinking, has to go on.” In comparison, when “Pappy” moved on he was “assigned to oversee the operations of 43,000 personnel, over 600 combat aircraft, and over $3 billion of economic impact. In addition, I was tasked with being the DOD lead for six presidential trips to South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. And that includes making tough decisions. That’s decision-making: how do I bed down what the Secret Service needs for a country 13 miles off the shore of a not-friendly country like Venezuela, and protect not only our president but 25 other heads of states as we were charge to do. The Department of State asked me to come and assist them in bedding down the logistics, the fighters, the early warning, the tankers, security forces, list goes on and on. I make direct recommendations. I set force structure and they always accept it. That’s fixing problems,” said “Pappy.”
Harris then asked “Pappy” about the story of McSally and her empty gas tank. “Pappy” replied, “What was what is supposed to happen, is that the crew chief, a nine level, which is a more senior individual, signs off that the aircraft is completely turned (ready to go), but it’s the ultimate responsibility of the pilot to accept that. Part of her responsibility is the checklist for pre-takeoff. You are directed, and it is not optional, to make sure the fuel gauge is functional and that you have the gas to perform the duty you’re supposed to perform. That didn’t happen. So shortly after getting airborne – again I said she was on an upgrade program – shortly after getting airborne, she calls out to the instructor, that she’s going to emergency; emergency communications.”
“Pappy” explained that there are “many radios in the airplane and communications problems don’t usually lead to emergencies.” But he said, that because she’s a pilot, ground crews couldn’t question her claim, and landed the air craft. “Pappy said that according to very reliable sources that were there at the time, McSally proceeded to berate the “ground folks for putting her into the position.”
But nothing of real consequence happened to the ground crews or McSally. “Pappy” explained that the ultimate responsibility lies with the pilot in command, and had another pilot taken off without gas, they would have had a flight evaluation board hearing. A hearing “could have caused her to lose her wings and take her out of the flying business altogether,” according to “Pappy” but a “higher authority,” protected McSally. “I don’t know how that all broke down. I only know what happened. And that she was grounded for two weeks,” said “Pappy.”
McSally’s campaign is fully loaded with fuel by the GOP this time around. Higher authorities within the GOP have seen that her real challenger; Chuck Wooten, has been starved of fuel, and is only running on the fumes created by an energized grassroots. However, like Bratt against Cantor, money might not carry the day for a candidate without integrity.