“Respond to Query Only”

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Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

F-22s over Alaska

Americans often believe government bureaucracy often prevails over common sense. This certainly happened to the Air Force earlier this year, when it sought to avoid embarrassment by curtailing its workforce’s communications with the public — even on a topic that was already revealed in the press.

First, some background. Earlier this year, the Air Force grounded F-22 Raptors due to an official investigation into why its pilots were not always getting enough oxygen. One of those instances occurred in November 2010 when an F-22 crashed in Alaska, killing its pilot. Mark wrote Monday about the accident investigation report, which “blames an F-22 pilot for crashing as he apparently – and vainly – struggled to breathe after his primary oxygen system shut down.” Read that again: the pilot, who was struggling to breath, was blamed. Defense News’s Dave Majumdar closed his story on the report with the line: “Ultimately, the Air Force chose to blame Haney rather than attribute the crash to a malfunctioning bleed-air system and a difficult to use emergency oxygen supply.”

But before this investigation report came out, there was the grounding of F-22s, which was ordered by May 3. The grounding was first reported by the media on May 5.

It’s easy to see why the Air Force didn’t like the story – it was more bad news for the F-22, its favored jet fighter, whose production run was capped at 187 planes a few years ago.

But once the story became public, the Air Force still hoped it would go away, or at least didn’t want to actively generate more news stories on the grounding. Air Combat Command – the part of the Air Force responsible for F-22s – issued guidance on the grounding instructing Air Force public affairs personnel that they were only to be “passive” on this issue. That means they were only to respond to media queries about the grounding, not to actively tell the public and media what was happening even though news stories were already published on the grounding.

Needless to say, this position was already somewhat absurd considering the news was already out. But it gets more ridiculous.

F-22s have appeared in air shows and are a draw for many. Some visitors even drive long distances to see these aircraft fly. Langley Air Force Base in Virginia planned on having F-22s fly in its 2011 AirPower over Hampton Roads open house. That open house occurred May 13-15, about a week and a half after the May 3 order that grounded F-22s. Furthermore, radio and TV segments were actively advertising the F-22s appearance in the air show. Given Air Combat Command guidance, could Langley Air Force Base’s public affairs personnel actively tell the media and the public about the grounding to prevent visitors who wanted to see the F-22 from wasting their time and money?

At least one public affairs employee thought the guidance didn’t make sense.

“If someone fills their gas tank to drive to Langley to see the F-22 because we’ve been promoting it on the web site and TV, only to find the F-22 not in the show lineup — and the Air Force knew it would not fly for a week and said nothing — it would not be a pretty sight,” wrote then-Langley public affairs specialist Richard Haverinen in a May 8 e-mail. “In fact, folks might be very angry.”

Haverinen followed through with his common sense approach. A few days earlier, on May 6, Haverinen escorted an Air Force officer and enlisted man who were to appear on WVEC, a local TV station in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to discuss the upcoming air show. Before the show began, Haverinen “specifically requested show host LaSalle Blanks to ask during the interview if the current F-22 stand down would cancel its appearance in the Langley air show,” according to a May 8 email by Haverinen to several of his co-workers. The host of the TV show asked the question and was told that the F-22 would indeed not be participating in the air show.

Had everything stopped there, I would not be writing this blog post.

When Haverinen’s superiors learned he prompted the TV host to ask the question, they blew their lids.

One Air Force major emailed Haverinen back and said “I don’t think ‘Passive’ PA guidance means you prime the interviewer with a question on the very topic you’re trying to stay passive about. …this could be very VERY bad for us.” That same major, in a separate email responding to Haverinen’s common-sense recommendation to change the public affairs guidance on the F-22 grounding, wrote, “The views expressed below do not reflect the Open House Director’s view on this topic.”

Haverinen also told me that, after the WVEC interview, he suggested the Air Force “should at least correct the broadcast ads, which were erroneously promoting the F-22 demo flight.” The suggestion was rebuffed as it did not fit the model of “respond to query only,” he said.

By May 10, it seemed that reason prevailed. A press advisory from Langley about the May 13-15 air show actively publicized the grounding of the F-22. “The F-22 Raptor will not be performing due to a May 3 command directed stand-down,” stated the press advisory.

But the day after the air show ended, Haverinen was put on notice that he had gone too far. A May 16 “Record of Oral Admonishment” given to Haverinen stated that his boss, “administered an oral admonishment to Richard Haverinen for action occurring on 6 May 2011.” It further states that Haverinen’s “personal decision to release RTQ [respond to query only] information without ACC/PA [Air Combat Command public affairs] approval illustrates lack of better judgment on your part. Such behavior is grounds for disciplinary action if this pattern continues.”

Over the next few months, Haverinen decided he had enough of the absurdity and left the Air Force three years earlier than he had planned. I don’t blame him.