Accidents, or Happenings? Unexpected encounters while flying.

I could feel the vibrations and hear the noise of the departing KC 135 tanker aircraft that early morning as it echoed through the heavy fog. I had just arrived at my office in the headquarters building. Suddenly this noise stopped and a heavy sickening “whooomp” vibrated the air. I stopped moving, waiting for the fog to release  the next noise, hoping I wasn’t hearing correctly. Then the sirens started wailing along with the sound of  heavy diesel engines straining.  Something was wrong.

I had just left the departing aircraft’s parking spot a few minutes earlier after biding  good bye to the General and several close friends. I wished the other 20-25 making the flight a “good trip” and left for my office. This was early spring of 1968 at Minot AFB, N D. The M/General and his inspection party had spent the night on base and were departing for Alaska. It was not one of Minot’s better weather mornings. We had fog, that really London type sticky fog that brought visibility down to fifty to a  hundred yards. This is the type of heavy fog that quickly puts a water film on your windshield, restricting visibility  even more. If the base had minimums for take off now, a few seconds later it wouldn’t have. It was a stinking morning  for flying, but they were cleared and planned to depart.

By now I knew what had happened. The aircraft had crashed. I hoped there would be survivors. Arriving at the crash site, I saw no personnel in flight suits standing or running.  The fire and rescue crews were busy, there was nothing I could do but watch the fire, be horrified by the great amount of black smoke that the full load of JP 4 can produce, and await the already known results. Later it was confirmed,  all on board had perished. All that we who watched could do was ask  “why?”

I believe the crash investigation report indicated  the General was in the pilot’s seat making the take off. The board concluded the accident  was pilot error in that directional control was lost about “nose up” time and a wing tip hit the ground, you know the rest of the story. A sorry day for all.

Now thirty years later, I’ve thought  about this accident and others that happened in “my” outfits over the years. None due to combat, just due to circumstances which were not controlled. Makes one wonder why, why did these “accidents” happen?  I knew many of the pilots and considered them reliable, proficient and capable. But why did their flying days end this way? If we had been faced with the their circumstances, would the outcome have been different? Here is an account  of the accidents I remember and was associated with, some more closely than others . Since memory can be faulty, some dates may be approximate, all are reviewed by date of occurance

I was a newly commissioned 2/Lt. pilot assigned instructor duties in B-25’s at Turner AFB, GA in 1945/46. During that time, one of our B-25’s  crashed during  a night cross country navigational flight. I knew the pilot, whom I thought was as capable as the rest of us  instructors. Don’t recall ever seeing or hearing the board’s findings on the crash, so have no idea why. Inexperience and vertigo possibly? All aboard were lost.

During the winter of ‘47/’48 I was at Tachikawa, Japan, flying cargo aircraft over the far east Pacific area. A C-54 returning to base one dark and stormy night flew into Mt Fuji, killing all on board. The pilot was a good friend and a member of our 6 man quonset family. He had a fair amount of flying time and was very safety conscious. Our instrument approach to Tachikawa at that time was to track outbound on a radio station located in the Tokyo area. The board concluded they tracked outbound on a signal from an incorrect station, taking them into the mountains. All flight crew and passengers were lost on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.

In 1948/’49 I was in Germany flying the Berlin Airlift. One of our planes overshot the runway, ran off the “far end” and crashed.  The findings, a case of landing too hot and too long on a slick runway. Again, fatalities.

In approximately 1950, while stationed at Fairfield Suisun AFB, Calif, two B-29 aircraft collided while making high altitude, night RBS (radar bombing scored) simulated bomb runs in the Stockton, CA area.  Both crews were lost. The report, one crew was off their assigned altitude. No reason given. There was no radar traffic control to track flights as we have today. How and why would that happen?

Believe it was the winter of ‘52/’53 at Fairfield-Suisun AFB, when we lost another B-29 making a night take-off. It was on one of our deployments to our forward operating base at  Guam. The aircraft was loaded to maximum take-off weight. B/Gen. Travis was aboard this aircraft and perished. The base has since been renamed in his honor. The board’s findings, as I recall, was an engine failure at a critical time during take off. Control was lost and the aircraft crashed. A highly qualified instructor/evaluator pilot was in command. Several, but not all, perished.

In December 1949, the 9th Bomb Wing stationed at Mt. Home AFB, Idaho was scheduled to return its 18-20 aircraft and crews from their 90 days of  Guam duties. Flying B-29’s, my crew was number 6 for take off, with 30 minutes between aircraft. As my afternoon departure time neared, we heard a radio call from the airborne #4 or #5 aircraft that they had shut down one engine and were returning to Anderson AFB. We were all heavily loaded, had full flight crews, extra freight and from 10-15 additional ground crew members on board. They launched my crew and planned to land the distressed aircraft  before the #7 aircraft’s  take-off. I learned later the pilot elected to land as soon as he returned. He overshot the final approach turn and increaserd his bank angle  to correct. He banked himself into a stall condition and crashed at the approach end of the runway. All on board were killed, including several good friends. The pilot had a good reputation and was certainly not considered fool-hardy. But he made a very big mistake.Why?

In 1957 I was flying B-52’s for the 92 BWH at Fairchild AFB, WA. On Dec 12th of that year, around 1600 hrs, we were waiting our take-off time when a B-52 took off toward the west. A very experienced instructor pilot was on board, also the wing commander. After breaking ground, the aircraft assumed an extremely nose high condition. It climbed steeply to about 500 ft, never recovered, stalled and crashed right wing down. Only the tail gunner, who exited while in the air, escaped. The cause of this unnecessary “accident”  was a real “Rube Goldberg” type malfunction. During manufacture the aircraft was assembled with a stabilizer trim motor that was produced with a malfunction in that  it would run in the opposite direction of the desired action. To correct for this, the factory people crossed  two control wires at a nearby junction box. This made the malfunctioning motor  work correctly. On  the day of the accident the scheduled plane had a problem with the stabilizer  trim motor, so one was cannibalized and installed. Yep, you guessed it, they took the cross wired one and placed it into a correctly wired aircraft. This made it work in reverse. It was not caught on the maintenance checks or the preflight check. (which was later revised to be able to catch such an occurrence) A wing commander, an experienced instructor pilot and crew were needlessly lost. The gunner recovered and continued flying. Why?

Then on Sep 8, ‘58, again around 1600 hours we at Fairchild had another real tragedy. We had several B-52s in the air flying transitional  work. One aircraft was on  a simulated instrument approach  and under the control of the local GCA (ground control approach) unit. I’m not sure if the aircrew  had outside vision obscured, but don’t think so. The second aircraft was flying a visual pattern and making touch and go landings using the same approch and runway. The instrument aircraft was on a long final, when the VFR aircraft turned final, turning right into the other aircraft. Obviously, neither saw the other, at least not in time to prevent the accident. A squadron commander, a couple of experienced instructor pilots as well as some 15-16 crew members perished. One extra co-pilot along for training and who was not in a seat was tossed clear while in the air and survived the landing. He was badly injured with nearly every bone broken, but he did survive. A couple years of  recovery and intensive therapy got him back into a fairly decent livable condition. I believe the board placed the blame on both aircraft, in that they did not maintain separation as required-a very hard to explain or understand type accident. Again, how could this happen?

In the spring of ‘68 then, was the KC-135 accident at Minot.(already mentioned) Again some very experienced and productive Air Force people lost.

But a couple of the more hard to understand and accept type accidents happened  again at Fairchild AFB, WA, one in 1987. The SAC command decided they wanted a heavy aircraft type exhibition team to perform at air shows etc., similar to the “Thunderbirds.” Only this flight demonstration crew, called  “ThunderHawks”  would consist of B-52’s and KC 135’s. A routine was worked out and approved by higher Headquarters, which had the two planes taking off very close to each other, climbing to a minimum altitude and then doing  a series of flyovers, together and separately over the base. The actual altitude planned for these maneuvers was less than 500 ft, sometimes down to 100 or 200. In addition to some criss-crossing and figure 8’s both aircraft were scheduled to make some very steep banked turns so the public could see the “tops of their wings.” Some pilots complained about being selected to fly these maneuvers, and several expressed concern that the plan exceeded the aircraft handbook limitations and was dangerous. However, some crews   continued  in the program. How many of us can or would  tell “the boss” that we can’t perform or don’t approve of a higher Headquarters directed mission?  So on Mar 13, 1987 again in late afternoon, such a practice routine was taking place at Fairchild over and adjacent to  the runway and at a very low altitude. During one of the figure 8 maneuvers, the KC-135 crossed very closely  behind the B-52 at quite a sharp angle. By doing this it took the full force of the jet wash turbulence the B-52 produced. It rocked the 135 so violently it went into a steep turn and with only a couple hundred feet below, crashed, killing all aboard and one person on the ground.  I believe the board concluded the KC 135 crew flew the aircraft too close to the ‘52 and lost control. Don’t believe much was said about exceeding flight limits, flight at such low level etc. This one rates at least  three WHY’S?

Again in the early 90’s Fairchild lost another B-52. It was  flying a night low level flight and failed to get over one of the flat mesa tops that Arizona and New Mexico are famous for. The report said it “skimmed” the top of one mesa, skidded off the end and crashed into the valley below. Again, an experienced crew lost. More “whys”?

The one that really takes the cake, though,  happened on June 24th 1994. The “ThunderHawks” still had command approval and with Armed Forces day coming soon, a B-52 was practicing  maneuvers for the show. His whole choreographed routine had been approved by higher Headquarters several times. The base’s most experienced B-52 IP, a Lt. Col, was to do the exhibition flying. It was a series of very steep pull-ups, climbs, very steep turns and varying speed maneuvers, most  not recommended  by the current Dash-1 (aircraft flight handbook).  I had seen this same pilot perform the year prior and frankly he scared me. I had nearly 5,000 hours in the aircraft and knew he was exceeding limitations greatly. I saw him at the Base Exchange after the previous show and talked with him. I told him my credentials and told him he gave me the shivers doing those unsafe turns and climbs. His reply was something like  “he really knew what the plane was capable of, and was experienced enough to push its limits.” I felt I really made a big impression with him! But now to his 1994 practice. He had finished his planned maneuvers and was preparing to land. For some reason the tower did not clear him to land and directed he re-enter traffic. He went downwind a short way, then made a very steep turn back toward the landing approach  end of the runway. The video film taken by an on-looker and examined by the accident review board concluded the B-52  was in a 105 degree bank when the left wing hit the ground, killing the 3 Lt. Cols. and one full Col. aboard. After the smoke cleared, and after much finger pointing, responsibility was never fully admitted or established.  Several previous safety violations against this pilot had been documented  in years prior so the command was aware of his tendency to repeatedly disregard safety standards and his willingness to exceed or disregard both altitude and aircraft limits, but took no action.  I think the Commander for Operations was finally pinned as the responsible person and received some disciplinary action. Nothing was made of the over-all program being a higher Headquarters directed activity and had been implemented on their orders and with their blessings. But this put an end to the “ThunderHawks”  program. Today it’s never talked about. But why did it take two aircraft, about a dozen lives and a change in command leadership to determine that the limitations placed on an  aircraft by its  manufacturer should be adherred to?  A really BIG never answered “WHY”

On a personal note. My granddaughter and my first three great grandsons were on the Delta 727 that crashed during take-off  at Ft. Worth TX. on Aug 31, 1988. Luckily they and 91 others  survived, but 13 were not that fortunate. The board concluded this was crew error for attempting a take off with the flaps not properly set. (they were full up) The black box showed the crew was delayed a short time at the end of the runway. During this time, some of the flight attendants were in the cock-pit and a lively private discussion was being enjoyed. They were interrupted by the “cleared to go” call and failed to complete their check list. Again, negligence and complacency. No word available on any disciplinary action against the crew. This preventable and needless accident cost  Delta Airlines one aircraft and many bucks in  settling  the liability claims. I would hope they also asked a lot of “whys”?

So even though all accidents are thoroughly hashed, re-hashed, dissected and investigated, many times the “why’s” are never fully answered and are hard to understand.  Excepting those accidents where equipment malfunction causes an uncontrolable problem, most “accidents” are really “not properly controlled” incidents. My career of some 10,000 flying hours were spent with many hours as an instructor and an evaluator. I like to think this taught me that even some of our best pilots can  have lapses. One B-52  co-pilot nearly ready for his Aircraft Commander checkout  forgot to lower the flaps one dark and stormy might. Would he have caught it in time had I or someone else not been there? I hope so. To be a safe pilot one must be “on guard” at all  times. Few pilots would  willingly risk his or  his passengers lives by doing procedures or manuevers that are prohibited or considered unsafe. This makes these even more difficult to understand. I still believe a  good approach is to think “what might happen to make this my last flight? Am I prepared and am I ready”? Would this help keep the unexplained “why’s” down?  Maybe. Complacency is always an enemy.

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