New book about twin tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base offers lessons for cops
In June 1994, a mentally unstable former airman killed five people and injured 22 others, and a reckless B-52 pilot took three other airmen with him when he crashed during air show practice
In June 1994, Dean Mellberg — who had been repeatedly referred for mental health evaluations and recommended for discharge from the military at every stage of his short two-year Air Force career — killed five and wounded 22 in the hospital at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington.
Four days after the deadly attack, a B-52 fell from the sky while practicing for an air show. The senior pilot at the controls was known among his peers to be talented but reckless, routinely pushing the massive B-52 bomber to — and arguably, beyond — its limits. Several aviators refused to fly with him and had attempted to get him grounded but the base leadership dismissed their concerns.
The crash and the shooting have much more in common than the fact that they occurred in the same week at the same base. Both incidents offer multiple lessons for leaders, and in a new book entitled "Warnings Unheeded: Twin Tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base" former military law enforcement officer Andy Brown delves into the multiple signals which were ignored.
Police response to the active shooter
Staff Sergeant Brown not only served with the 92nd Security Forces for the Air Force, he was on duty when Mellberg unleashed hell in the hallways of the hospital, which sits just outside of the perimeter of the base. Brown also happens to be the officer who ended the threat, shooting Mellberg with his 9mm Beretta sidearm. The resulting investigation determined Brown had been between 68 and 71 yards away when he shot him.
Brown had been a patrolman for five years, but that day was his second shift on the base’s newly implemented bike patrol. He had just patrolled the housing areas on base and had stopped at a gate shack on his way to patrol some off-base housing areas and the base hospital grounds. A call came over the radio that an individual was running around inside the hospital with a shotgun. In fact, the gunman was armed with a MAK-90, a variant of the AK-47.
“I immediately started riding toward the hospital, about three tenths of a mile away down a straight two lane road,” Brown told Police1. “Several vehicles passed me as they fled the area, the occupants attempted to alert me to what was going on at the scene, but I could not hear them and just kept pedaling. As I neared the hospital campus I rode through a crowd of people fleeing the area and asked ‘Where is he?’ The crowd collectively pointed behind themselves, yelling, ‘There’s a man with a gun. He’s over there. He’s shooting people’.”
Brown rode further, charging toward the deep boom of gunfire reverberating off the buildings. He spotted a man dressed in dark clothing, walking down the road with a long gun at his hip. As he walked, he fired to his left and right.
“I rode up onto a sidewalk, dumped the bike and took a kneeling position as I drew my M9 Beretta. I yelled at the man, ‘Police! Drop your weapon!’ He fired to his side again as I repeated the command. Then he turned his attention and his rifle on me. I didn't know how far away he was, but I figured if I could see him, I could hit him. I struggled to acquire a sight picture. His upper torso was nearly obscured behind the steel post of my front sight. When the sights lined up, I continued the trigger press and fired three rounds in a controlled succession, as fast as I could reacquire him in the sights.”
Brown fired a fourth round and the gunman spun around and landed flat on his back, motionless. That round struck on the bridge of his nose, passed through his brain and exited neatly at the base of his skull. Brown told Police1 that a responding medic had said, “He had a great pulse but wasn’t breathing ... he was gone, his body just didn’t realize it yet.”
Lessons learned from two preventable tragedies
Doctors suggested on several occasions that Mellberg suffered from schizophrenia and adult-onset autism. They repeatedly said that he should be released from military service, but those recommendations were ignored or overruled. When he was finally discharged, Mellberg fixated on two specific mental health care doctors at Fairchild AFB and sought revenge.
“As for prevention, there were countless warning signs exhibited by the would-be gunman that were missed or ignored,” Brown said. “There were numerous people sounding the alarm that he had the potential for violence, others predicted he would come to work with a weapon seeking revenge.”
Brown includes Dan Marcou’s Five Phases of the Active Shooter in the book and as you read about the gunman’s history, you can see him progress through each phase.
Brown writes that the Fairchild shooting is an example of what a solo responding officer can achieve. It is also demonstrates the need to practice beyond your handgun’s maximum effective range. It also reveals the need for officers to carry a patrol rifle.
Another lesson learned is found in how Brown continually prepared himself for that fateful day. Because security police were not allowed to take their duty weapons home after work, and Brown didn’t think they received enough firearms training, he had bought a Taurus PT92 — a clone of the Beretta M9 — so he could train in his off-duty time. He also bought Chuck Remsberg’s Street Survival books and studied the life-saving information they contained.
“The books taught me the technique of mental rehearsal,” Brown said. “Every day before I went to bed, I would mentally practice responding to a lethal threat.”
As for the B-52 pilot, the previous base commander forbade Lieutenant Colonel Arthur “Bud” Holland from performing in air shows, but when a new commander took over at Fairchild AFB, that status had not been fully communicated. Instead, Holland had been told to fly by the book in future air shows. That admonishment fell on deaf ears.
“His aggressive flying went unchecked and grew progressively dangerous,” Brown said. “He routinely exceeded the safety protocol for the heavy bomber, which was the size of an airliner, and performed dangerous maneuvers at low altitude, ignoring his crews’ requests to fly more conservatively. The story of the B-52 crash is another example of what can happen when leadership becomes lackadaisical and when politics get in the way of doing what is right.”
During what was supposed to be a training flight in the BUFF, Holland had even once buzzed his daughter’s high school while she played in a softball game, but that incident was not reported to command staff, and his behavior continued to become more dangerous.
Holland’s deadly crash of Czar 52 was the direct result of too many occasions of tolerance of previous reckless piloting. Colonel Robert Wolff, Lieutenant Colonel Mark McGeehan and Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth S. Huston all perished because of a failure of leadership.
Brown’s book presents the circumstances of both tragedies in a narrative style using the words of the people who lived and died during these events. The lessons are clear if the reader wants to learn from history. Readers will plainly see the positive and negative consequences of people’s actions and inactions. The reader can ask themselves, “What would I have done, or what should I be doing to prepare for something similar?”
“The book is not a memoir of my experience but it is interspersed with short chapters that reveal the preparations I made that allowed me to respond as I did. I also write about my experience with the after effects of trauma. The reader will see what can happen if you fail to address the negative symptoms that can follow a mass-casualty incident,” Brown said.
A long road to recovery in the aftermath
Brown was twenty-four years old at the time of the shooting. He is doing well today, working for the Department of Homeland Security in the Spokane area, happily married and the proud father of his school-age son and daughter. However, it took a while for him to get there.
“I struggled with the guilt after the shooting,” Brown said “I experienced the stress effect of time distortion and believed it took me too long to get to the scene, that it took me too long to return fire and too long to stop the killer. I felt responsible for the wounded and the lives that were lost.”
Brown would later obtain a copy of the police radio audio recordings and discovered his response time was remarkably fast. With the additional help of the counseling services of the Spokane VA, Brown eventually worked through that guilt and learned to manage the other post shooting trauma symptoms he developed.
“Another lesson I hope people take from this is to not be ashamed of seeking counseling,” Brown said “I believe if I had not waited so many years to seek help, it would not have affected my quality of life nearly as much as it did.”
Indeed, Brown’s book contains many lessons, but reads a lot like a novel. Brown chronicles both troubled individuals alternately, covering Mellberg in one or two chapters and Holland in the next. The lessons contained in those pages can benefit those in the military, law enforcement, mental health community, as well as everyday citizens. As an added bonus, it’s a really great read.