DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
December 19, 1995

VIP AIR NEEDS TO BE GROUNDED

Last June, the Pentagon's Inspector General blasted Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ashy for blowing about $200,000 on two flights aboard U.S.A.F. VIP aircraft.

If a corporal or a captain had caused this violation of public trust, he would have been shot at dawn -- or at least drummed out of the service. But Ashy had only to reimburse the tax- payers a measly $5,020, and the squad of Air Force spin controllers who lied and covered up for him barely got their hands slapped.

Ah, doesn't rank have its privileges, and the higher the rank, the greater the privileges.

To give this ugly tale a final twist, Ashy remains with his finger on America's nuclear button as head of Space Command, and his mea culpa check wasn't even cashed until the IG asked more questions.

Air Force Chief Sheila Widnall says she "feels badly" about the check not being cashed. Her aides say the "misplaced" check -- which she condescendingly called a "piece of paper" -- was locked in a safe due to "bureaucratic snafus," and the delay in getting it into a government account was "inadvertent."

What a pile of garbage! Can any reader -- rich or poor -- imagine having a check for five grand lying around the office for three months?

An insider says, "These people were damn careless. And in this case, they never intended to cash the check. They all believe what Ashy did was OK."

Thanks to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, and his assistant, "Bulldog" Charlie Murphy, your money was finally deposited in the bank.

I don't know what's going on with Sheila Widnall, but she doesn't seem to be a whiz-bang custodian of our dough. Only a few weeks before she was nailed on the lost check caper, I discovered that she and a top Army general were both getting luxury suites for their airplanes.

This didn't make sense. Why was the Air Force spending taxpayer dollars on plush accommodations for fat cats, when by its own admission it doesn't have enough money to buy war-fighting stuff?.

I wrote about this scandal, and both costly and heretofore "urgently needed" VIP suites were suddenly canceled. But obviously, the $1.5 million was small potatoes to the Pentagon spenders, who throw our money around like an oil-rich sheik on his first shopping trip at Tiffany.

A classic example of such high- spending waste and abuse is the Pentagon's multibillion dollar VIP fleet, which nobility like Ashy take as their entitlement. These 500 air- craft have nothing to do with fighting war; they're flying Taj Mahals, not fighters or bombers.

Sen. Grassley says, "This VIP fleet is nothing more than the private airline for senior government officials." He wants to cut the fleet by 50 percent, saving taxpayers around $550 million a year.

Right on, Sen. Grassley! The fleet is a perk and toy of the powerful. It costs over $1 billion a year to run and is frequently in direct competition with commercial flights flying the same routes.

For example, a commercial flight between Washington and Dayton costs $98, vs. $2,460 for the same trip on "VIP airlines." A 24-minute VIP helicopter flight between the Pentagon and Andrews Air Force Base (Md.) costs more than $1,600. A cab costs $30 and takes 35 or 40 minutes.

Grassley asks, "Is there anyone in the government whose time is worth that much money?" Amen, and that includes Bill Clinton, who got his ears lowered in his flying limo while parked at LAX, closing the airport for almost two hours.

The VIP fleet must not only be slashed, but what's left of the luxury aircraft should be consolidated under the single management of one arm. I say give'em to the Marines, who would run them lean and tight. Marines have the guts to tell the spoiled royalty, Your trip's not necessary -- take a bus!

If during the next few months you see a pack of top brass riding in the back of commercial aircraft, you'll know Grassley won another battle for the U.S. taxpayer.

Think of the money the taxpayer would save if we had just 10 watch-dogs like Grassley sniffing around within the oh-so-corrupt capital Beltway.