What Really Happened at NAS Pensacola, and Why
From: A Veteran with 20+ years of service, a Naval Aviator who flew combat missions in Iraq, and had 15+ years in counter-terrorism. Also served as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola.
I reported to Building 633 at Naval Air Station Pensacola in October of 2002.Checking in to flight school is a point in time for each future aviator that is never forgotten. Nobody becomes a Naval Aviator by accident.
Setting foot on the quarterdeck and dropping your orders to get stamped at Naval Aviation Schools Command is the culmination of years of applications, college, physical training, aptitude screenings, FBI background checks, and performance well above your peer group who had also been competing for the coveted “pilot spot”. If you get there via the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, when you get to Pensacola, you have “made it”, but you are also just starting.
Instructors and staff refer to the entirety of the training program as “The Pipeline”The start of The Pipeline is the front desk at Building 633 in Pensacola. This is where the first reality check for future aviators sets in, as class and flights don’t start the next day. There are only a certain number of seats for each API (Aviation Preflight Indoctrination) class, and there is a waiting list. “A-Pool” is where you wait (a pool of people, not of water). Building 633 is where A-Pool is administered, and where the weekly Friday morning muster takes place, and where the next week’s “class up” list is announced.
This is where the terrorist attack took place.
The Naval Aviation Training “Pipeline” at a glance:
-A Pool. Pensacola.
-Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API), 4 weeks of academic classes and water survival courses. Pensacola.
-Primary Flight Training (150ish hours in a T-6 Texan). Pensacola or Corpus [Christi]
-Advanced Flight Training (Jets, Props, Helicopters). Wings are earned at completion of Advanced. Pensacola (Helicopters), Corpus (Props), Kingsville & Meridian (Jets)
-Fleet Replacement Squadron. (Learning your fleet aircraft). Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard aviators all go through the same training pipeline through Advanced.
It was just after 0700 last Friday when my phone starting ringing. A relative’s best friend called her in a panic because her husband wasn’t responding, and she wanted to know if I knew anything. Luckily, he is a doctor at the hospital at Corry Station, about 3 miles away and nowhere near the shooting and I was able to put them at ease for his safety.
I had a group chat with about 20 officers still in the area. Friends and co-workers were exchanging information, all of them aviators, many still on lock down. Some of them were directly in charge of the response and involved in the investigation. All of this is available now in open media, but this is what I know.
The Saudi terrorist checked in on Monday and seemed “normal”. He held the “dinner party” on Thursday night with more than 10 Royal Saudi Air Force Officers in attendance. At this party, they watched videos of mass shootings, mostly Islamic propaganda. The next morning, Friday, he systematically attacked building 633 while one of his fellow officers followed and filmed, several other Saudis waited and observed the attack from a car.
The attacker started at the Quarterdeck (front desk), and the 3 killed were on duty at the time. Ensign Watson was the duty officer, was shot 5 times and still managed to call first responders and evacuate the building and personally direct them to the location of the shooter prior to dying of his wounds. The other 2 killed were also in the immediate vicinity of the quarterdeck. Many of the wounded were as well, some being wounded as they tried to climb out of windows.
Per Navy policy, none had weapons to defend themselves with.
The first responders that confronted the shooter were from the local sheriff’s department. Two were wounded in the gun battle, and the terrorist was killed. Three active duty Americans were dead, 8 more wounded, 2 deputies wounded. Many of the wounded were shot through the doors of classrooms on multiple floors of building 633. Most of the base remained on lockdown well into the afternoon as the base was systematically searched for the missing Saudi terrorists officers. By day’s end, 6 additional Saudi Arabian officers were in FBI custody, and several were at large in the community and a man-hunt is still underway.
So, over a 5 day span, the terrorist checked in, acquired a handgun with 4 extended magazines and ammunition, posted a manifesto online condemning the US as a “nation of evil” along Islamist and anti-Semitic lines, planned and executed his attack with at least 3 accomplices. At least 10 Saudi Military Officers knew of the plan, and either participated or did nothing to stop it. Each one of these individuals had passed the screening process to come train in the United States. That brief recount of the chain of events begs a series of questions, some of which are easier to answer than others.
Here are some of the most obvious questions, and my best effort to answer them.
• Was this terrorism?
Absolutely. Much has been made of the lack of a formal declaration by the Military or other Federal Authority, but I understand the delay. Not only is a long term alliance involved (more on that later), but there are several members of the Royal Saudi delegation still at large within the United States. If you declare all of them terrorists, it makes the possibility of an orderly surrender virtually zero. On the off chance that these guys were at Waffle House at the time of the attack and are freaked out and hiding, it’s appropriate to not label them terrorists, yet. Congressman Gaetz has appropriately called this terrorism and called for a review of entire program.
• Why are we training Saudis in Pensacola?
While the brightest light is on the Saudis in the program, we train aviators from multiple nations in Pensacola. Germany, Sweeden, and Singapore also have a large volume of students train in Pensacola. The obvious comparison to this incident is to the fact that the majority of the 9-11 highjackers trained in Florida. It is an important distinction to note that all of those individuals were civilians and had no interaction with any military training program.
It is equally important to note that 10+ members of the Royal Saudi Air Force knew of a planned mass murder of American military, and either participated in it or agreed in principal to allow it to happen.
Saudi Arabia is currently our strongest ally in the Middle East. We base troops there, we stage equipment there, we get our fuel for operations from there. If we are going to be involved in the Middle East, we need an ally like Saudi Arabia.
We were also allies with Iran, until the Islamic Revolution there resulted in the famous hostage situation. Then were then allies with Iraq, until Saddam fired on the USS Stark (killing 37 sailors) and subsequently invaded Kuwait. So now we are allied with Saudi Arabia, for now.
• What is it like training an international student?
Each nation is different, and it was interesting to see some stereotypes play out and interact with different cultures. The Swedish and Norwegians were your typical vikings. The Germans were often humorless, focused, and smart. The Singaporeans were incredibly disciplined, and this group of students policed itself in an impressive manner. Any Sing who did poorly on a flight or test would have the other students ensure they did well the next time around. I’d gladly fight alongside any of these guys any day of the week. I stay in touch with several of my students as their careers advance.
The Saudi students have an entirely different reputation and structure to their training. While all of the other nations employ a form of meritocracy to be in the flight program, the Saudi students are typically the child of a Saudi sheik, politician, or member of a rich/important Saudi family. They all drive luxury vehicles, and flaunt their wealth to the other students and instructors. It isn’t unusual to see a Saudi student wearing designer shoes that cost thousands of dollars in their uniforms instead of their issued shoes or boots.
The Saudis do not stand any of the squadron watches (Like assistant OOD, where the flight schedule is executed), while other nations participate fully in squadron functions. The Saudis also have a cadre of senior officers in Pensacola, ostensibly to monitor and aid the progress of the students. They employ a number of former/retired (US) Navy pilots to serve as tutors to the Saudis, and also to provide instruction on how to properly interact with their US instructors and inside of American society. The retired officers also act as a liaison to the American command structure.
Our instructors are told that we can only instruct the Saudis in flying. Issues regarding disciple, respect, or military bearing, etc all have to be referred to the liaisons. Those issues are rampant among the Saudi contingent, and are well known among the chain of command. While there are certainly some Saudi students who have been respectful and disciplined, the norm is an aloof, arrogant child who seeming feels superior to his instructor.
American and non-Saudi international students are expected to show up to the pre-flight briefs ready to explain all of the concepts required in the flight to the instructor (proof they study and paid attention in class). Saudi students often show to briefs unprepared to meet that standard, and expect the material to be presented to them anew. The norm for the Saudis is to pass the student regardless of performance, unless they are simply a danger to themselves, then they get referred back through the liaisons.
We are paid to move them through the pipeline and deliver them having completed the syllabus. We can’t make them study. One friend had a Saudi student refuse to recover an aircraft from a spin, and simply threw up his hands and stated “If Allah wills it, it will recover.” This was during out-of-control flight, with the aircraft falling several thousand feet per minute. The instructor took controls, recovered from the spin, and returned base. That student eventually graduated.
I have had conversations over the last 3 days with at least a dozen current or former Navy flight instructors. Unanimously, the sentiment is that Saudis should be expelled from training in our program. Not only is there legitimate concern for personal safety and national security, there is a general feeling that they won’t be able to put their feeling aside and provide proper training.
• Why did the Sheriff Department have to stop the shooting and not active duty watch-standers or military police?
In short, because the Sailors at NAS Pensacola were failed by their leadership.
After the Naval Reserve Center in Chattanooga was attacked by a Muslim terrorist, then Candidate Trump was critical of the policy of military members being disarmed while on duty. The only reason that the Chattanooga body count wasn’t higher, was because the Navy Commanding Officer (an aviator) had disregarded policy and had his personal handgun with him in his office and he confronted the attacker and returned fire. He would later say that he disregarded policy because the safety of his command was his ultimate responsibility. He defended his command that day, and saved lives.
The next ideation of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) included provisions to allow commanders the discretion to allow CHL holders to bring their personal weapons onto base to defend themselves in similar instances. Tragically, no US commander has had the guts to implement the allowances granted by law.
We didn’t learn our lessons with the Fort Hood shooting, The Navy Yard Shooting, The Chattanooga shooting, so now we have this. Will we finally recognize the threat and allow those who have sworn to defend the constitution of the United States the ability to defend themselves while at work on US soil? I doubt it. Sadly, I think it will take an action similar to what President Trump took with Chief Gallagher to make stubborn and stupid Navy leadership do what is the obvious and correct course of action.
• Should we have seen this coming?
Absolutely. When I told my father (a retired Naval Aviator) that a foreign student was responsible, he responded “I’ll bet it was a Saudi.”
A brother is a veteran Naval Flight Officer who trained in Pensacola. His response, “It’s probably a Saudi.”
My neighbor from Pensacola who now flies for an airline “Mother F***, you know it was a Saudi!”
For some reason, there is a political push to excuse these attacks as one-off, or that the perpetrator was “radical”. The news is already saying “There is no direct link to a terrorist organization.”…as if ISIS gives out membership IDs and T-Shirts. The Politically Correct folks tell us to not judge an entire religion or culture by the actions of a single individual.
The Factually Correct among us look at this chain of events and see no coincidences. The fact that such a large portion of the Saudi contingent knew of the impending attack and chose to participate, and none chose to stop it show the truth that many have long known but few in leadership will acknowledge. The actions taken by this Royal Saudi Officer were not at all “extremist”. His views and actions were well in line with the mainstream Saudi Officer in the unit.
Defenders of Islam will say that it is a “Religion of Peace” and only “extremists” join the terror groups. With sad irony, many critics of Islamic terrorism have observed the rise of ISIS with their pool of men and resources flowing largely from Sunni Saudi Arabia have said said that it’s the extremist Muslim who is actually fighting, but the peaceful Muslim is the majority….they just write the checks. The example in Pensacola shows us that it’s the minority extremist shooting his classmates, it’s the peaceful Muslim standing alongside filming.
Students of history will know that these terror attacks are not random nor motivated by “extreme” thinking. It is an American tendency to think that history started in 1776, or maybe 1492 at the earliest. Our schools teach world history and battles that took place in Europe as being between empires like the “Romans” and “Ottomans”.
They leave the parts out where it was the HOLY Roman Empire that defeated the ISLAMIC Caliphate in Vienna, September 11th 1683. This military defeat and it’s date is etched into the cultural identity of every Muslim just like the Alamo and San Jacinto are taught to kids in Texas. The only difference is that Texas school children don’t have a religious document telling them that the conquest continues and it is their life-long Jihad to install islam as the law of the entire world.
The events in Pensacola last Friday are minuscule in the scope of world history. It is, however, a perfect illustration of the war of cultures (and yes, religions) that we currently find ourselves as particpants in. While the Politically Correct in Washington will likely downplay the details and work to wipe the event from the headlines to preserve an alliance, the Factually Correct among us are still walking the streets with Saudi terrorists at large.
Those in our military will follow the orders they gave their oaths to follow, though we strongly disagree with them. We will likely continue to risk our lives and work to train people that hate us, and would kill us if given the opportunity. The King of Saudi Arabia can say that the actions don’t reflect those in his Kingdom. The facts make him a liar.
• Where do we go from here?
1. Immediately allow all Commissioned Officers and senior NCOs (E-7+) who are qualified (military or CHL) to carry a military equivalent or issued weapon while on duty.
2. All Saudi personnel in the US should be restricted to base, and have their quarters searched for weapons. If they had no knowledge, they should be expelled. If they did have knowledge or participated, they should be executed.
3. Suspend training Saudi personnel indefinitely. Only resume the program when the FBI can conduct background checks for each student and officer. Once screened and admitted, Saudi students should be restricted to base and not allowed into the community.
4. Evaluate the “alliance” between the US and Saudi Arabia beyond the fact that they are a client nation buying billions of dollars in weapons and training. Is our strategic relationship with the Saudi government worth the cost inflicted on us by a Saudi population which clearly hates us and continues to do us harm. Do the officers that we train for combat ever actually participate in conflict in a meaningful way that support US interests or relieve demand on US forces. If not, disband the program forever.
5. Be better students of history. Value reality above wishful thinking. Judge cultures and religions by what they do, rather than what they want you to think. Take political blinders off and build and execute policy based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
Place to talk while we get our act together.
3 posts • Page 1 of 1
From another site I visit:
My best guess is that things like this are seen as the cost of maintaining the petro-dollar.
I hate to admit it, but I agree. Without the gold standard, the US needs the petrodollar to remain a world leader. Without it, we'd be like the UK or France.