Thunderhawks Take Off -- and Crash
At 1:20 p.m. on Friday, March 13, 1987, a B-52 Stratofortress and a KC-135 Stratotanker took off from Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) to practice aerial maneuvers for a 15-minute air show scheduled on Sunday, May 17, Fairchild's annual Aerospace Day. The show was to be the debut of a new aerobatics team dubbed the Thunderhawks, the brainchild of General John T. Chain Jr., commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Its purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities of SAC’s large aircraft through a series exciting routines that included a low-level refueling simulation, high-bank turns, and flybys down the runway. Colonel Thomas J. Harris, commander of the 92nd Bombardment Wing at Fairchild AFB had been assigned the responsibility for the Thunderhawks’ creation and development in December 1986.
The KC-135A-BN Stratotanker, No. 60-0361, had three instructor pilots aboard the aircraft: Lieutenant Colonel Michael W. Cornett, Captain Christopher Chapman, and Captain Frank B. Johnson. But no one on the ground at Fairchild knew who was actually in command of the aircraft when it took off. Also on board plane were two navigators, Captain James W. Litzinger and First Lieutenant Mark L. Meyers, and refueling-boom operator, Staff Sergeant Rodney S. Erks.
The KC-135 had just taken off from runway 23, in tandem with the B-52, and was executing a steep left-hand turn when it suddenly rolled from an intended 45-degree bank to almost 90 degrees, stalling the two engines on the left wing. The crew managed to level the aircraft, but it was flying too low and slow to recover. The plane crashed landed in an open area north of the flightline, behind three large hangars, narrowly missing the base’s bombing and refueling squadron offices. It skidded through a security fence, across an access road, and killed Senior Master Sergeant Paul W. Hamilton, a member of the Thunderhawks on his day-off from flying, who was sitting in his car watching. The aircraft traveled for another 200 yards, then hit an unmanned weather radar tower and burst into flames. During the journey, the tail section separated from the fuselage as well as the wings, engines, and wheels. One wing, ripped off by the collision with the radar tower, landed 50 yards beyond the burning wreckage.
Within minutes, Fairchild’s crash teams were on scene, fighting the fire caused by spilled jet fuel. Spokane International Airport, four miles east of the base, dispatched a crash truck and the Spokane Fire Department mobilized an entire engine company to assist in battling the blaze. Because of the toxic fumes and dangerous flare-ups, reporters and photographers were not permitted near the scene. It took firefighters more than three hours to extinguish the flames and hot-spots from the crash. Searchers found the bodies of five crewmen in the forward section of the blackened fuselage. The body of the sixth crew member was finally found late Friday night, tangled inside the cockpit wreckage. It wasn’t discovered immediately because the recovery teams were being careful to safeguard the crew compartment for the Air Force accident investigators.
Mourning and Investigating
On Saturday, March 14, Colonel James L Holmes Jr., vice-wing commander, 6th Strategic Wing, Eielson AFB, Alaska, convened a 13-member investigations board at Fairchild and began a formal inquiry into the cause of the accident. The board included nine Air Force officers, two enlisted men, and one civilian from other SAC bases. A large portion of their day was spent touring the crash site, still reeking of jet fuel, where twisted wreckage had been strewn over hundreds of square yards. The investigation included autopsies on the bodies of the airmen to screen for possible drug or alcohol use.
At 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17, 1987, a memorial service was held at Fairchild AFB to honor the seven airmen who died in the KC-135 accident. The service, held in the base chapel, was attended by more than 600 people. Those unable to crowd into the chapel watched it on closed circuit television in an adjacent building. Colonel Harris, Fairchild’s commander, delivered the eulogy. The hour-long ceremony was concluded with a bugler playing taps, a 21-gun salute by an Air Force Honor Guard, and a Stratotanker executing a low pass over the chapel.
Questions Are Asked
Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Norman D. Dicks (D-Bremerton), a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, was asking pointed questions about the fatal accident. He said he wasn’t aware of the Thunderhawks’ existence, which had been developing routines since early January, until reading a news story about the group shortly before the crash. In Dicks’ view, the Thunderhawks program was directly responsible for causing the unnecessary deaths of seven highly trained and indispensable airmen and the destruction a $19 million-dollar airplane. He wanted Congress to examine whether special aerobatics teams posed unacceptable risks to military fliers and expensive aircraft. U.S. Representative Thomas S. Foley (1929-2013), a Spokane Democrat, joined Dicks in requesting a formal review of the air demonstration programs. (Congress normally doesn’t micromanage military budgets and programs, however, subcommittee oversight sometimes occurs when specific problems arise.)The Spokesman-Review, a Spokane daily newspaper, polled various military and civilian aviation experts on the capabilities of the KC-135A Stratotanker and published the results. The consensus was that large, heavy aircraft such as the KC-135 should not be used for aerobatics or low-altitude exercises. According to Om Chauhan, Air Force manufacturing supervisor at the Boeing Military Aviation Company in Wichita, Kansas, the tanker was designed for high-speed, high-altitude refueling, not for slow, low-level flying. “Large planes like the KC-135 require more time and thrust to recover from power loss or other problems, and flying close to the ground increases chances of a crash” (Corollo and Wagoner). John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute, stated: “It absolutely amazes me that they want to demonstrate the capabilities of air-to-air refueling so close to the ground. It’s not in their mission. It's all showing off” (Corollo and Wagoner). And a spokesman for the Air Force Secretary’s office claimed they weren’t aware of the Thunderhawks program until the accident happened.
On Friday, June 12, 1987, the Air Force Accident Investigation Board released an official report concluding the crash of the KC-135, which happened just after takeoff, was caused by wake turbulence from the B-52 with which it was to practice aerial stunts. The tanker was behind and at a slight angle to the bomber’s flight path, overshot its turning point and started a 45-degree roll to the left to get back on course. When the KC-135 inadvertently hit the B-52’s wake, the plane suddenly rolled to nearly 90 degrees and was flying too low and too slow to enable a recovery. According to the flight plan, the KC-135, with refueling boom extended, was to execute a pass at approximately 500 feet, with the B-52 following at 200 feet. During the demonstration, the tanker was never intended to fly lower than 100 feet above the flight path of the bomber.
Aerial Circuses Reconsidered
As a result of the KC-135 crash at Fairchild AFB, the Air Force canceled all scheduled SAC aerial demonstration programs and the Thunderhawks team was officially disbanded. The Air Force Secretary, Edward C. Aldridge Jr. promised Congress it would not to use heavy aircraft, such as bombers and tankers, in risky maneuvers for air shows. The Air Combat Command (ACC) subsequently developed regulations which stated that heavy aircraft perform only straight, level passes over a fixed point during air shows, at minimum altitude of 500 feet above ground level, by no more than four aircraft, and not involving aerobatics. Any deviation from the regulations must be reviewed and authorized by the Air Combat Command.
The military formed “air demonstration teams,” such as the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels, which fly powerful jet-fighter aircraft to boost recruiting and morale and give the public the opportunity to see the skill and professionalism of the pilots and crews. The programs, however, cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually and have been responsible for numerous fatalities as well as the destruction of expensive aircraft. But the Defense Department values the aerial circuses, as they raise the public's perception of the military, and currently has no plans to change its policy regarding air shows.
Captain Christophe L. Chapman, age 28; pilot, Tacoma, Washington
Lieutenant Colonel Michael W. Cornett, age 42, pilot Cortez, Colorado
Staff Sergeant Rodney Scott Erks, age 28, refueling-boom operator, Lennox, South Dakota
Senior Master Sergeant Paul W. Hamilton, age 41, refueling-boom operator, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Captain Frank B. Johnson, age 40, pilot, Spokane, Washington
Captain James W. Litzinger, age 32, navigator, Verona, Pennsylvania
First Lieutenant Mark L. Myers, age 24, navigator, Canal Fulton, Ohio