U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crashes at Fairchild Air Force Base, killing seven airmen, on March 13, 1987.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/20/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8871
See Additional Media
On March 13, 1987, a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crashes at Fairchild Air Force Base, Spokane County, while rehearsing maneuvers for an air show, killing six airmen and a spectator. The accident occurs just after takeoff when the large aircraft accidentally runs through the wake turbulence of the B-52 Stratofortress with which it was practicing, crashes into an open area near the runway, and bursts into flames.  The tragic event marks the inauspicious introduction of a bomber-tanker demonstration team known briefly as the Thunderhawks, the Strategic Air Command’s answer to the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics teams.  

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.  

Casualty List

  • 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

Sources: “KC-135 Downed by B-52 Wake,” Flight International, No. 4070, Vol. 132, July 11, 1987, p. 13; “Tanker Flew Too Low, Inquiry on Crash Finds,” The New York Times, June 15, 1987, p. B-12; John H. Cushman Jr., “Air Shows and Risks: At What Price Valor., Ibid., September 2, 1988, p. B-4; “Air Force Jet Crash Kills 7 Near Spokane,” The Seattle Times, March 14, 1987; “Probe Into KC-135 Crash Starts,” Ibid., March 15, 1987, p. B-2; “Briefly: SAC Likes Air Displays Despite Tanker Crash,” Ibid., March 15, 1987, p. C-2;“Jet Crash Cause Won’t Be Revealed; Tanker-Accident Probe Secret, Says Air Force,” Ibid., March 16, 1987, p. D-1; “Briefly: Air Force Mourns Samurai Spirit of 7 Dead Flyers,” Ibid., March 18, 1987, p. F-2; “Review Sought in Probe of Crash,” Ibid., March 19, 1987, p. B-4; “Ill-Fated KC-135 Termed Too Big for Low-Level Flying,” Ibid., March 21, 1987, p. A-8; “Fairchild Tragedy; What was Purpose of Air Force?,” Ibid., March 24, 1987, p. A-10; “Briefly: Air Force Relaxed Low-Altitude Flight Rules Before Crash,” Ibid., June 3, 1987, p. H-2; “Briefly: Expert Blames KC-135 Crash on Bad Decision,” Ibid., August, 1987, p. B-2; “Service Planned to Honor 7 Killed in Airplane Crash,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 17, 1987, p. D-11; “Colonel Honors ‘Heroes’ Who died in Tanker Crash,” Ibid., March 18, 1987, p. D-2; “Air Force Flying Unit Grounded,” Ibid., March 18, 1987, p. D-2; Russell Corollo and Jim Camden, “Six Die, One Missing in Fiery Tragedy,” The Spokesman-Review, March 14, 1987, p. A-1; Richard Wagoner, “Witness: Crew May Have Died to Save Others,” Ibid., March 14, 1987, p. A-1; Richard Wagoner, “Thunderhawks Mission to Show Off SAC’s Best,” Ibid., March 14, 1987, p. A-6; Richard Ripley, “30 Year Safety Record for KC-135 Very Good,” Ibid., March 14, 1987, p. A-7; Jim Camden, “Low Death Toll from Crash Called Miracle,” Ibid., March 15, 1987, p. A-1; Jim DeFerde and Richard Wagoner, “Flash of Fire Engulfs 7 Families in Tragedy,” Ibid., March 15, 1987, p. A-1; Mike Murphy, “Base Chapel Plans Service for Seven Victims,” Ibid., March 16, 1987, p. A-1; Richard Wagoner, “Former Commander Grieves for Seven Who Died in Crash,” Ibid., March 17, 1987, p. A-1; Richard Wagoner, “Final Tribute Given 7 Killed in Plane Crash,” Ibid., March 18, 1987, p. A-1; Russell Corollo and Jim Camden, “Congress Wanted in Crash Probe,” Ibid., March 19, 1987, p. A-1; Russell Corollo and Richard Wagoner, “KC-135 Aerobatics Strongly Criticized by Airplane Experts,” Ibid., March 20, 1987, p. A-1; Jim Camden, “Foley: Aerobatic Teams May Require Review,” Ibid., March 21, 1987, p. A-1; “KC-135 Victims Memorialized, Buried,” Ibid., March 24, 1987, p. A-7; “Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker,” Boeing website accessed August 2008 (www.boeing.com/history/boeing/kc135.html); “ASN Aircraft Accident Boeing KC-135A-BN Stratotanker 60-0361 -- Spokane-Fairchild AFB, WA” Aviation Safety Network website accessed August 2008 (http://aviation-safety.net/database); “Accident Details: March 13, 1987,” Planecrashinfo.com website accessed August 2008 (http://planecrashinfo.com/1987/198715.htm).
Note: The residence of Captain Frank B. Johnson was corrected on May 31, 2011.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You