Pilot of plane barely missed buildings before crash


FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- An Air Force tanker jet that crashed during a training mission veered away from buildings moments before it crashed in a field, killing seven people, investigators said.

'It's a miracle we didn't lose more than seven folks,' Air Force spokesman Capt. Bob Ballew said Sunday.


The four-engine KC-135, carrying six men, crashed shortly after takeoff Friday into a field only a few hundred yards from buildings that house bombing and refueling squadrons. All aboard the plane and a serviceman on the ground were killed.

Pat Holmes, a landfill worker who saw the accident, said he saw black smoke shoot from one of the plane's engines moments before it crashed.

'It was jerking and bucking up in the air like a horse,' said Holmes.

Ballew told reporters: 'We don't know what the cause is at this point, and when we do, we're not going to tell you. The cause will never be released.'

Air Force policy requires that the results of accident investigations remain confidential, he said.

Officials at Fairchild, a Strategic Air Command base 10 miles west of Spokane, started interviewing some 200 witnesses and maintenance crew members shortly after the crash.


The KC-135 was part of a newly formed aerial act known as the 'Thunderhawks' and was practicing for its first public performance next Friday, families of the crew members said.

The aerial act includes high-banked turns, a low-level simulated refueling of a B-52 bomber and high- and low-speed passes over the base. A B-52 was practicing with the KC-135 but was some distance away at the time of the crash.

The plane toppled a weather observation tower and a hit a parked civilian vehicle, killing a serviceman sitting inside.

KC-135s, modified versions of the Boeing 707 known as 'flying gas stations,' are used to refuel other jets in flight and can carry up to 29,000 gallons of spare fuel.

The victims were identified as Lt. Col. Michael Cornett, 42, of Cortez, Colo.; Capt. Christopher Chapman, 28, of Tacoma, Wash.; Capt. James Litzinger, 32, of Veroma, Pa.; First Lt. Mark Myers, 24, of Canal Fulton, Ohio; Capt. Frank Johnson, 40, of Peninsula, Calif.; Staff Sgt. Rodney Erks, 28, of Lennox, S.D.; and Senior Master Sgt. Paul Hamilton, 41, Portsmouth, N.H.

Cornett, Chapman and Johnson were all pilots, while Litzinger and Myers were navigators, and Erks and Hamilton were boom operators. Hamilton, the senior non-commissioned officer for the 92nd Refueling Squadron at Fairchild, was killed when the jet hit his car on the ground.


In three decades of service, the KC-135 Stratotanker of the type that crashed has been involved in 71 accidents, a good safety record, Air Force officials said. More than 640 of the planes are still in service, with 30 of them operating out of Fairchild.

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