A 23-year-old airman who died in an all-terrain utility vehicle accident in Kuwait last fall was the passenger on an unauthorized joyride gone wrong, the Air Force said in a new investigation report published Tuesday.
The Air Force found that the driver of the Army-owned Polaris Ranger failed to follow its owner’s manual, and violated multiple Air Force and Defense Department safety regulations by taking the vehicle out for a reason unrelated to work and attempting to pull a fast U-turn on the sand.
The incident marked the second deadly non-combat vehicle accident at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait within three days.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Ouellette, an Air Force reservist from Merrimack, N.H., was deployed to Ali Al Salem from the 42nd Aerial Port Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., at the time of the accident. There, he supported air mobility missions in the Middle East while assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron.
On Sept. 14, 2020, Ouellette and another, unnamed, staff sergeant with the same expeditionary squadron, reported for their 12-hour shift beginning at noon. After moving around other vehicles — a Jeep Cherokee and a recovery vehicle known as a “wrecker” — that were delivered by a C-17 that day, the two airmen decided to take an Army-owned Polaris Ranger ATV out for a drive.
The ATVs are used to ferry maintenance personnel, tools, and parts around airfields and other locations overseas.
Taking a lap around Bay 69, a cargo yard on base, the unnamed driver lost control of the vehicle when he made a 180-degree left turn on the sand without a foot on the brake. He estimated the ATV was traveling around 15 mph, while the Air Force report suggested the vehicle was moving as fast as 35 mph.
The vehicle tipped onto two wheels, and the driver escaped through the ATV’s roll cage. Ouellette “appeared to attempt an unsuccessful jump from the passenger side of the vehicle,” the report said, but the ATV pinned him to the ground as it fell onto its side.
Ouellette died instantly from severe head trauma around 5 p.m. local time, the Air Force said.
The driver, an active-duty airman with the 437th Aerial Port Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., incurred minor injuries.
“Neither [the driver nor Ouellette] were wearing seatbelts, helmets, eye protection or long-sleeved shirts,” the report said. “The only obvious damage to the vehicle after the mishap was a few small scuff marks on the vehicle frame on the passenger side.”
The driver gave multiple explanations for why the airmen were in the ATV that day. When security forces arrived at the scene, the driver told them he and Ouellette were “just out joyriding” and “hit the turn too hard,” according to the report.
Later, the driver said he had heard the ATV “sputtering,” potentially because of an issue with the carburetor. It’s unclear whether routine maintenance and repairs due that summer were completed by a Polaris dealer.
The staff sergeant told investigators he wanted to drive the ATV to troubleshoot the problem, though that was not his responsibility. He did not flag the issue for maintenance crews.
“The [driver] violated regulation when he took it upon himself to fix the ‘sputtering’ … which he was not authorized to do,” the Air Force said. “Whether troubleshooting the [ATV] or joyriding, every member of the 386 ELRS that was interviewed by the [investigation board] stated this type of action would be inappropriate.”
The driver and his supervisors did not fill out mishap reports as required after the accident, the report added. He returned to South Carolina eight days later.
Ouellette’s death came just two days after Senior Airman Jason Khai Phan died in an unrelated Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected ATV rollover at the same base.
“Ronald was a valued member of the Patriot Wing and there are no words that can heal the pain his loss brings,” Col. Craig Peters, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, said at the time. “We consider every airman, civilian and dependent part of the team that makes all we do in the defense of our nation possible. The loss of our own, or any service member, is never easy.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.