Helicopter “Joyride” Exposes Dysfunction Within California National Guard

A helicopter trip on a foggy morning produces a clear example of high-ranking hypocrisy

“Integrity First”

The California National Guard is a branch of the military with the motto, “Integrity First.” But some members of the Guard point to problems over several years that have eroded morale in the organization.

In a joint investigation with NBC Bay Area, NBC4 Southern California has uncovered a questionable and potentially dangerous flight under the Golden Gate Bridge by five California National Guard helicopters in June. Some people say it was a reckless and risky decision, but it’s what happened after the flight that members of the Guard say exposes the real problems.

High ranking hypocrisy

Exclusive video and photos obtained by NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area News show an ill-advised helicopter trip that originated at Moffett Field. The video shows a gray helicopter going under the Golden Gate Bridge. The photos show four other helicopters trailing behind it. According to sources, the helicopters are HH-60 Pave Hawks with protruding refueling probes, which belong to the California National Guard and are used by Moffett Field’s 129th Rescue Wing.

The video and pictures also show that the bridge is shrouded in fog. Members of the California National Guard say that foggy morning produced a clear example of high-ranking hypocrisy.

Air Force regulations require a minimum cloud ceiling of 700 feet. The top of the Golden Gate Bridge measures 746 feet and the distance between the water and the roadway is 246 feet. The photos appear to show the fog sitting well below the Air Force requirements for safe flying in non-emergency situations.

A veteran military helicopter pilot with flying experience in Afghanistan and Iraq agreed to speak with NBC4 Southern California’s Chief Investigative Reporter Joel Grover on the condition that the television stations hide his identity because of fears of retribution. The pilot watched the video of the flight under the bridge.

“Why did you agree to this interview?” Grover asked the pilot.

“Someone needs to speak up,” the pilot responded. “This kind of breakdown of discipline, this kind of flying violation just sets a bad example for younger pilots.”

Grover asked the pilot: “In your expert opinion, was the decision to fly these five helicopters a prudent decision?”

“Definitely not prudent,” said the pilot.

NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area have learned that the decision to go under the bridge was made by two top senior leaders at the 129th Rescue Squadron. A document obtained by the television stations show that then Major Thomas Keegan and the unit’s commander, then Major Matthew Wenthe, were the two pilots in the lead helicopter that made the decision to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge in less than ideal weather conditions.

Grover asked the pilot: “Can the National Guard justify five helicopters going under the Golden Gate Bridge in these conditions?”

“I would say no,” said the pilot. “There was no purpose on the other side of that bridge. Nothing required them to go under the bridge.”

Sources say that the people on the helicopters were on an “incentive trip”—or reward for good work— for 40 members of the California National Guard, with 20 pilots and crew leading the way. But sources say the flight was officially described by the Guard’s leadership as a “familiarization trip” for members of the 129th Rescue Wing to learn the terrain around San Francisco. NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area could not determine which kind of flight it really was.

“Some of the sources we talked to say this was an incentive trip,” Grover told the pilot, “a joy ride.”

The pilot said: “It looks as if it was an incentive flight, which makes it even more egregious because the people on board don’t buy into that risk. They have no idea what’s going on.”

The pilot said that in his opinion the decision-makers should have been disciplined following the flights and that “peoples’ promotions (should be) held up for making poor decisions.”

But NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area have confirmed that the Guard did not discipline Keegan and that Wenthe received only a written reprimand. The television stations have also confirmed that in the weeks following the flight under the Golden Gate Bridge, both Keegan and Wenthe received promotions to lieutenant colonels.

Contrast that with what happened to Lieutenant Colonel Rusty Henderson from Moffett Field’s 129th Rescue Wing.

Rusty’s Story

Henderson has served the in United States Military for nearly 20 years, including 10 years with the California National Guard. In 2005 Henderson was honored as the Field Grade Officer of the Year, one of the highest awards for a Guard member with a field grade officer ranking.

In an interview Grover asked Henderson: “In 2005, you were the best of the best?”

“That is correct,” Henderson said.

“You were cited for being not one of the best,” Grover asked, “but the best?”

“Very prestigious award,” Henderson said. “I am very humbled to be awarded this trophy, absolutely.”

“Will you get nominated for this award in 2012?” Grover asked.

“Not a chance,” Henderson said.

“So in seven years you go from the highest award in the Guard to out?” Grover asked. “How does that happen?”

“I wish I had a good answer for you,” Henderson said.

Henderson was released of his active duty tour on May 30 of this year. He says he was fired from his fulltime position for standing up for one of his airmen who he believed leadership was wrongfully discharging from his post. Henderson believes he was ultimately relieved of his command for challenging leadership—a stark contrast to the promotions that followed the flights under the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I can tell you that the culture at the 129th Rescue Wing is fractured,” he said. “Toxic in my opinion.”

Secret Report

A still-secret report is also highly critical of the culture in the California National Guard. In May 2011, two National Guard members from other states led an independent investigation into problems in the California Guard.

NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area obtained a copy of the draft report co-authored by those two investigators—the content of which was confirmed by Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Petty of the Oklahoma National Guard. The report was originally requested by the California Guard, paid for with tax dollars and ordered by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. But 18 months after the report was finished, the California Guard’s leadership has confirmed it still does not have a copy.

In a February letter to the National Guard Bureau Major General Baldwin—the commanding officer of the California National Guard—asked for a copy the report “so as to identify opportunities to improve” Equal Opportunity and Equal Employment Opportunity programs within the Guard.

Sources say the fact that leaders of the California National Guard have not seen the contents of the report exposes a culture of dysfunction within the Guard.

Grover spoke with Petty—one of the investigators and co-authors—at his home in Oklahoma City.

“Why ultimately did you decide to talk?” Grover asked.

“Because so many people have asked me to,” Petty said. “And because in California they don’t have a copy of the report I wrote.”

“You found some significant problems,” Grover said.

“Yeah,” Petty responded.

“And from all indications nothing significant changed,” Grover said. “Frustrated?”

“I am sure they are,” Petty said, referring to the 14 members of the California National Guard he interviewed during his investigation.

Petty found that sexual harassment and a hostile work environment are common in the California National Guard and that the mediation process is seriously flawed.

According to the report, “racial tension has been high since 2008,” “the N-word and F-word are used daily and often…” and “failure to investigate complaints is common.”

The NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area joint-investigation included meetings and interviews with nearly two dozen men and women from the Guard who claim say they have witnessed sexual harassment, racism and retaliation.

All nine of the men and women of the California National Guard who spoke on-camera say they are frustrated with the current state of the culture, and believe the information contained in the report co-authored by Petty embarrasses the National Guard.

Grover asked Petty: “You called this a big problem—shouldn’t it be a big priority?”

“Well sure,” Petty said, “it should always be a big priority when you find these kinds of things.”

The California National Guard said that it cannot comment on the report co-authored by Petty because it has not yet received the report.

“A Great Story to Tell”

In February of this year, the state senate confirmed Major General David Baldwin as the California National Guard’s Adjutant General after being recalled from Afghanistan and appointed to the post by Governor Jerry Brown in April 2011.

“I have a mandate from the Governor to change the culture of the organization,” Baldwin told the Senate Rules Committee in Sacramento during the Feb. 15 confirmation hearing, pledging to fix deeply-rooted problems dating back several years.

Grover asked the group of nine men and women of the California Guard who spoke on camera if Major General Baldwin kept his promise to fix the issues they have raised for years.

They responded with a unanimous, “no.”

Through his spokesperson, Major General Baldwin told NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area that he has a great story to tell, but declined to answer questions on camera. In fact, the general has denied multiple interview requests over a period of three weeks. NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area do intend to ask the tough questions to General Baldwin in a public place in the weeks ahead.

Inside sources say they want the Adjutant General to fix a culture where some Guard members believe risky flights under the Golden Gate Bridge are accepted and standing up for a better culture is not.

“That would perhaps be a culture of arrogance,” the helicopter pilot said. “A culture where the leadership feels the rules do not apply to them. Perhaps a culture where people aren’t held accountable so they can feel they can get away with things. And obviously, this is very blatant.”

Send your tips for the NBC4 I-Team to nbc4iteam@nbcuni.com or call our tipline: 818-520-8477.

All interviews for this story were conducted jointly by the investigative teams at NBC4 Southern California and NBC Bay Area.

Contact Us