Air Force releases KC-135 crash report
Accident in 2013 result of equipment malfunctions, crew actions
Questions revolving around the crash of a KC-135 aircraft, which resulted in the loss of three airmen from Fairchild Air Force Base — Capt. Mark T. Voss, Capt. Victoria Pinckney and Tech. Sgt. Herman Mackey III — in May 2013, have been answered.
Air Mobility Command revealed several findings in their investigation report for the Shell 77 accident, during their March 13 briefing. Brig. Gen. Steven Arquiette, the Inspector General, Headquarters Air Mobility Command, Scott Air Force Base III, gave a detailed report that included the series of events that led to the accident and the factors that contributed to it.
On May 3, 2013, a KC-135R tanker flown by the FAFB crew, took off from Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan on a refueling mission. The aircraft departed at 2:37 p.m., 18 minutes before scheduled.
After takeoff, the crew reported that the craft was “waffling” and “getting difficult to fly.” The plane went into what Arquiette described as a “Dutch roll,” where the aircraft was simultaneously rocking side to side and moving up and down.
“It begins a turn to the left and this situation just goes back and forth in an oscillatory manner,” Arquiette said.
He added that the movement would either result in the aircraft dampening out or grow into a more severe case.
The crew, who did not recognize this kind of situation, turned the plane left toward the flight path and engaged the autopilot twice, which caused the aircraft to oscillate more.
Despite attempts from the crew to stabilize the plane, the tail section detached from the KC-135. This led to the plane exploding as it entered a high-speed dive. Debris from the aircraft was scattered over an area more than 2 miles square in the foothills below the Himalaya Mountains, 11 minutes after take-off.
According to Arquiette, several factors contributed to the KC-135’s crash.
During the investigation, which took 10 months to complete, officials who inspected the debris from the aircraft, determined that a rudder lock lever was worn and may not have operated properly, which could have increased the problem of the roll.
Another factor in the KC-135 accident was “organizational training problems” on the Dutch roll recovery procedures and the handling problems related to the Series Yaw Damper. Arquiette said the crew was qualified, well rested, medically cleared and in “good spirits” for their mission, but had “little recency of experience” which he said “reduced situational awareness and detracted from safe operations.”
At a press conference, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander Col. Brian Newberry said the crew was “absolutely qualified” but they were a “young crew” and not prepared to handle the situation.
“Were there different decisions that other pilots may have made?” Newberry asked. “Perhaps, but for this crew and many other pilots they would have made the same decisions, and they did the best.”
The Air Force is taking several measures to increase the safety of the KC-135 fleet. Arquiette said KC-135R crews will get more training on how to handle a Dutch roll.
The flight manuals and procedures on how to handle a Dutch roll are being revised. The maintenance for the aircrafts and systems for rudder control and flight data recorders are also being updated. Arquiette added that KC-135 simulators would be modified, as the Air Force might continue using the KC-135 tankers through the next 10 years.
Al Stover can be reached at email@example.com.