In the days after a Canadian fighter pilot was charged with drunk driving upon his arrival at a San Diego air base, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force sent an email to colleagues.
“We should have a quick chat on DUIs,” Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood wrote on Nov. 14, 2016. “Not sure if someone can pull stats together but would like to see if this is something we need to address more fulsomely.”
The San Diego arrest was not an isolated incident for Canada’s pilot corps. Since late 2015, four other military pilots have been charged with drunk driving and two more were disciplined following an alleged drunken incident at an air force base mess hall that resulted in a female officer claiming she feared one of the pilots was making unwanted advances.
Hood’s request came after a captain, a member of 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta, was stopped by U.S. military police at the entrance to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where he had been scheduled to join his fellow fighter pilots in training exercises.
Military records reveal that the fighter pilot had just arrived in San Diego on a commercial flight and was driving a rental vehicle to the base. He was detained by military police for three-and-a-half hours and eventually charged.
The name of the pilot has been censored from the military documents. But according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, Capt. Kevin Bowness was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher by Miramar military police. The charges would later be dropped.
In another case, a car made a U-turn near a military police check at the entrance to the Canadian Forces Base in Cold Lake and drove the other way at high speed, according to internal reports of the incident. A fighter pilot was charged that night with impaired driving, and the charges were later dropped.
The military refuses to say whether the officers charged with drunk driving were subject to internal remedial measures or discipline. The two who were disciplined after the mess hall incident were soon afterward selected as the symbolic “escort” pilots for Santa Claus, a high-profile part of NORAD’s Christmas activities.
The air force told the Star it takes allegations of alcohol misconduct by its personnel “very seriously.” It said that all incidents are investigated and if warranted, the air force will “lay the appropriate charges and/or conduct administrative action.”
It added that Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, the new commander of the RCAF, has been clear in his expectations: “I trust that leaders at all levels of the RCAF will set the example and demand and enforce respectful behaviour and ethical conduct,” he said.
Meinzinger said all of the nearly 14,000 military personnel who make up the air force are “exceptionally skilled professionals,” from whom they expect a high standard.
The small cadre of pilots selected to fly the aging — but still potent — front-line CF-18 fighter jets are among the RCAF’s most elite members.
Operating from bases in Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que., the CF-18s stand ready to fly NORAD missions to safeguard North American sovereignty and see regular deployments on NATO missions to places like Iceland and Romania and to U.S. air bases for training.
The Cold Lake base was home to an alcohol-fueled incident on Nov. 13, 2015, when Capt. Pierre-Claude Quirion, a pilot with 433 squadron, was with Capt. Andrew Jakubaitis and others in the officers’ mess.
Details of what happened that night are taken from an agreed statement of facts at Quirion’s court martial.
Serving the pilots was a female lieutenant who was working at the bar. Quirion and others poured beer and threw peanut shells on the floor as a toast to an absent colleague but promised the server they would clean it up. Quirion also occasionally poured his own beers from behind the bar.
The server called “last call” at 11 p.m. but with some 10 guests in the bar, the pilots told her to remain open.
Quirion and the server, who were both French-speaking, exchanged what he considered to be friendly banter throughout the night.
But at one point, he took her face in his hands and she thought he wanted to kiss her on the mouth. She rejected him, indicating she had no interest. At 1:30 a.m., she closed the mess.
While she was passing through a corridor, turning off the lights, Quirion took her by the wrist. She had the impression he was trying to drag her into the unlit corridor. She managed to push him away.
Following that night’s events, the server resigned her mess hall job fearing she would be alone with a customer in “similar or worse circumstances.” The woman, who no longer works in the military, did not respond to a request for comment.
Quirion was charged under the National Defence Act with assault, abuse of a subordinate and drunkenness. The charges of assault and drunkenness were withdrawn by the prosecution, and he pleaded guilty to abuse of a subordinate.
At a court martial held in October 2017, he was sentenced with a reprimand and a $1,500 fine. The military judge cited Quirion’s “excellent service records” and his good career prospects in the Armed Forces.
He also faced “administrative follow-up,” according to the court, but no details were provided.
Jakubaitis was charged with one count of drunkenness under the National Defence Act in relation to the same incident. He was found guilty and sentenced to a $500 fine, following a summary trial held in November 2016. The air force did not provide any other details about his trial.
Neither Quirion nor Jakubaitis responded to requests for comment.
In December, 2015, one month after the incident, Jakubaitis was selected by the air force as one of Santa’s escort pilots. Quirion was named to the same honourary position in December, 2017, two months after his court martial hearing.
The RCAF justified the choice of Quirion, saying he is bilingual and “excellent at engaging with the public.” It said the fighter pilot had shown remorse and improved his behaviour.
Military records obtained by the Star reveal that at least three other air force pilots have been charged with impaired driving in recent years and sent for counselling for violating defence department directives on “alcohol misconduct.”
The names of the pilots are redacted from the documents, which do not provide any information about how the charges were resolved.
In one of these cases, a pilot who flies the C-130J Hercules transport aircraft with Trenton-based 426 Squadron was stopped by Ontario Provincial Police officers. The pilot is reported to have failed a roadside sobriety test.
The documents show the pilots were subject to six months of monitoring, with monthly meetings, and ordered to take steps to improve their performance.
When Capt. Kevin Bowness was stopped and charged in 2016, the Miramar air base in San Diego was a temporary home to Canada’s top guns. Pilots, technicians and their CF-18 fighter jets had decamped from their base in Cold Lake to sunny southern California for a period of intensive flying to hone their skills and get rookie pilots up to speed flying the front-line jet.
Another Canadian fighter pilot — Capt. Denis Beaulieu — was returning to the Miramar base and noticed the rental van stopped by military police at the gate. “I parked my car and talked with the (military police officers) who informed me that the driver . . . had been arrested for DUI,” Beaulieu wrote in an email.
At 2:30 a.m. — more than three hours after he had been detained — Bowness was collected from American military custody by the deputy commander of 401 squadron and immediately confined to barracks as other officers weighed the possible fall-out.
“As a DUI is a federal offence . . . there are implications related to conduct / discipline while operating as guests on allied base,” Lt.-Col. Seane Doell wrote in one email.
Bowness’ case was referred to criminal court in San Diego, where the charges were “dismissed without prejudice” on Feb. 1, 2017. It’s unclear why the charges were dropped or what happened at Bowness’ hearing. Court officials said there is no transcript or recording.
A few months later, on July 22, 2017, military police officers were conducting late-night traffic checks at the main gate to the Cold Lake air base when they saw a vehicle make a U-turn about 200 metres down the road. The officers followed the vehicle in an attempt to make a traffic stop. “However, the vehicle continued to travel at a high rate of speed,” according to military reports obtained by the Star.
The vehicle was stopped in the parking lot of the officers’ mess around 1:35 a.m.
Military police officers — three in all — had an interaction with two military members, one of them a pilot with 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Details of that interaction are censored from the reports prepared by the military police officers and their handwritten notes that were released under access to information.
Alberta court records revealed that Capt. Thegne Rathbone, a CF-18 pilot, was charged that night in Cold Lake with impaired driving and driving with a blood-alcohol level greater than 0.08.
Rathbone pleaded not guilty to the charges on Sept. 13, 2017. The charges were withdrawn on Jan. 31, 2018, according to court documents. It’s not clear why.
In its statement to the Star, the air force declined to say whether Rathbone or Bowness faced any administrative action as a result of the civilian charges, citing privacy laws. “We cannot disclose whether remedial measures are taken against specific individuals.”
Neither Bowness nor Rathbone responded to requests for comment.
In its statement, the air force said there were 28 significant incident reports involving alcohol misconduct in 2016, 30 in 2017 and 11 this year, as of Oct. 31.
The air force added that military personnel are regularly briefed on expected behaviour and the rules around alcohol misconduct.
Air force personnel are not allowed to consume any alcohol 12 hours prior to flying and eight hours before reporting for duty. As well, they are limited to no more than two alcoholic beverages within a 12-hour period when conducting training or operations.
“All Canadian Armed Forces members are expected to maintain a healthy regard for alcohol, and members who engage in alcohol misconduct are liable to criminal, disciplinary, and/or administrative actions, including release,” the air force said.
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