Mar 16th, 2018

The Thunderhawk Crash of 1987

The Thunderhawk crash of 1987.  This Friday marks 31 years ago since I lost seven fellow crewmembers to a KC-135 accident.  The exact date was Friday, March 13, 1987.  Yes it was Friday the 13th, but that had little to do with the accident.

I had been stationed at Fairchild AFB in Spokane Washington for almost exactly two years.  Fairchild was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base.  Therefore the main mission was nuclear deterrence.  Four to five, maybe six B-52s sat day after day loaded with fuel and nuclear weapons.  Close by 6-10 KC-135s sat ready to takeoff and refuel those B-52s.  Crews lived in nearby barracks, poised to drive to the airplanes, start, taxi and takeoff within about ten minutes in case the Russians attacked.

SAC had a commander named General John (Jack) Chain.  Chain had come out of the fighter world and desired to spice up the (perceived to be) dull Strategic Air Command.  Chain’s brainchild was the Thunderhawks. They would be an aerial demonstration team of a KC-135 and a B-52.  It was conceived in the spirit of the Thunderbirds the Tactical Air Command’s (TAC) fighter demonstration team.

The team had been formed at Fairchild several months before.  I do not know why Fairchild was selected.  Most at the base considered it a compliment, but some considered it a risk.  The latter were correct.

Chain and others at SAC wanted the KC-135 and B-52 to be seen “top to bottom”.  Previously a KC-135 might fly by an airshow at 500 feet above the ground with the boom down.  A B-52 would fly by at 500 feet with the bomb bay doors open.  That was it.  Chain wanting “yanking and banking” and for the crowd to see the top as well as the bottom of the airplane.

I was a young copilot. There was little chance I would be selected for the missions.  They mostly had seasoned instructor pilots  who had 10+ years in the aircraft, minimum.  I watched a few of the demonstration practices and they were impressive.

On Wednesday, March 11, I got off of nuclear alert duty.  I had until Sunday off for what was termed C2 (Combat Crew Rest and Relaxation).  In other words, I did not have to come back to the base until Monday.

Ron Collins got a call that the team was to practice on Friday.  He planned to go in, despite the fact that he was also on C2.  His wife through a fit about it (he had been gone for a week on alert duty) so he stayed home.

At the base six crewmembers got on board.  One boom operator, two navigators and three pilots.  The pilots would take turns flying.  After takeoff from Runway 23 behind a B-52 the KC-135 pulled up and banked at nearly a ninety degree angle (30 was usually the maximum) the plane then nosed over and began heading towards the ground in a dive.  A radio call was heard to the effect of we can’t go there, we’ll hit the BX.

Mark Gregg was standing at the back of a Squadron Safety meeting.  He turned his head and glanced out the glass window of a door just in time to see the KC-135 crash in a field between the Base Operations / Control Tower complex, The BX and the squadron he was standing in.

As the plane was about to hit the field it crossed a road with a car sitting there.  Standing next to the car was Paul, a boom operator who was scheduled to fly on that KC-135 that day, but cancelled because he was sick.

Aerial views of Fairchild.  The plane crashed in the field below the dark rectangle terrain in the black and white photo

All crewmembers aboard perished, as did Paul on the ground.

The accident report was released later (  The cause of the crash was identified as a stall caused by an overly steep bank caused by hitting the wake turbulence of the B-52.

It was the first time I had lost a fellow crewmember in my unit to a plane accident.  I knew all of the crewmembers and had flown with a few of them.  I knew Jim Litzinger the best.  He was an instructor navigator who decided to hop onto the flight at the last minute.  A monument now stands the Air Park at Fairchild, listing the crewmembers:

Michael Cornett  Pilot

Frank Johnson Pilot

Chris Chapman Pilot

Jim Litzinger Nav

Mark Myers Nav

Rodney Erks Boom

Paul Hamilton Boom (on the ground)

To read more and see pictures: