Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

For crews on Air Force KC-135 tankers, parachutes are not an option

TAMPA — The crew parachutes came out of the U.S. Air Force KC-135 flying members of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's entourage during his 1959 visit to the United States.

It would have been awful public relations, after all, if an emergency forced the U.S. crew to bail out while leaving Soviet passengers behind to die in a crash.

The crew didn't care, pilot Bill Lusk said, because they knew parachutes are about as useful in a KC-135 as they are on a submarine.

"It just becomes an absurdity to provide parachutes that have a 99.9 percent chance of never being useful," said Lusk, 80, of Las Vegas. "You don't bail out of a KC-135."

The question of parachutes in KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft — 16 of the jets fly out of MacDill Air Force Base — is in the news again due to a recent report and its findings from a May 2013 crash involving a Stratotanker en route to Afghanistan. Three KC-135 crew members died in the crash in Kyrgyzstan, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The crash of the KC-135 was the first since the Air Force ordered parachutes out of all those aircraft in 2008 to save fuel and because the jets have an outstanding safety record, Air Mobility Command officials say.

Retired KC-135 pilots said the Air Force did so with good reason. Namely, the parachutes are almost useless unless a KC-135 is flying straight and level, and only then if the crew has enough time to open a floor hatch behind the cockpit and jump out.

KC-135s have no ejection seats.

"If you're not right-side up, it's impossible to bail out," said retired KC-135 pilot Bill Fisher, 82, of Norman, Okla., who flew the airplane from 1958 to 1972.

Fisher said he never had to evacuate. "Just to be honest, the airplane was so safe that you never really were ever faced with a time when you really needed parachutes," he said.

The accident report said almost nothing about parachutes beyond two lines:

Crew "egress was not possible. The KC-135 is not equipped with parachutes, ejection seats, or any other means of in-flight egress."

In an April 14 story, Time magazine weighed in on the issue in a story headlined, "Disaster in the Sky: Old Planes, Inexperienced Pilots — and No More Parachutes."

The Time story opened, "Putting young, inexperienced pilots into a 50-year-old Air Force plane seems like a risky idea. Even riskier? Getting rid of crew's parachutes to save money."

The accident investigation concluded the KC-135 crash was caused by a "Dutch Roll," which rocks the aircraft side to side, and pitches the nose up and down in a continuous cycle. If unchecked, such rolls can worsen until the forces on the aircraft exceed its design limits.

In the case of the KC-135 that crashed last year, the tail broke free of the aircraft.

The report blamed the crash on the relatively inexperienced pilots not recognizing they were in a Dutch Roll that was triggered by a malfunctioning flight control system.

Their in-flight manual may have confused the issue, the report said, because of poor organization, making it difficult for pilots to access instructions that warned against some of the very maneuvers they used to try to correct the aircraft's roll.

The report also noted that flight simulators cannot adequately replicate the Dutch Roll, and investigators said pilots receive little instruction on the roll during flight training.

Air Force Lt. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command, said the KC-135 that crashed fell into a near vertical dive after the tail separated. He said the g-forces probably rendered the crew unconscious.

The two pilots were working to regain full control of the KC-135 right up to the moment the tail fell off, so even if they had parachutes, they would have still gone down with their plane, Thomas said.

"There was no indication from the data voice recorder they knew their plane was about to break up," Thomas said.

The accident board, he said, concluded parachutes would have made no difference.

The Air Force initially said it knew of no instances of a successful KC-135 bail out. But Time quoted one former KC-135 pilot whose crew bailed out in 1969 after the plane ran out of fuel.

And Fisher, the retired KC-135 pilot from Oklahoma, said one of his pilot friends had a navigator and boom operator safely bailed out of a KC-135 after an engine caught fire. The two pilots stayed with the plane and landed it without incident.

In both instances, the aircraft were flying straight and level.

Not everybody is certain keeping parachutes out of the KC-135 is a good idea.

"Deploying air crews to a combat zone without parachutes is an unconscionable risk," Alan Diehl, a former civilian Air Force safety investigator, told Time.

The Air Force's top acquisition goal is to replace its aging fleet of KC-135s, saying it fears a safety issue will one day ground the entire fleet. Boeing is building a new tanker, the KC-46, but phasing it in will take decades.

"Nobody wants to die casually," said Lusk, the retired KC-135 pilot. "And if you've got a parachute, maybe there is a chance if something very, very bad happens, you can escape with your life. But it's kind of moot point."

Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

For crews on Air Force KC-135 tankers, parachutes are not an option 04/27/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2014 10:50pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas County receives $30 million for beach renourishment

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– While Pinellas beaches continually rank among the best in America, they need help to stay that way.

    The Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $30 million to help with beach renourishment at several Pinellas locations, including including Sand Key, Treasure Island and Upham Beach. This photo from 2014 shows how waves from high tides caused beach erosion at Sunset Beach near Mansions by the Sea condominium complex SCOTT KEELER   |   Times

  2. Straz Center parking squeeze infuriates patrons, motivates search for solutions


    TAMPA — When the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts opened 30 years ago, it welcomed just 30,000 patrons its first year.

    Fireworks shoot into the sky over the David A. Straz Jr. Center For The Performing Arts. [SCOTT MCINTYRE, Times]
  3. Video shows naked man who stole swan sculpture in Lakeland, deputies say


    The Polk County Sheriff's Office is searching for a large swan sculpture that was stolen from a Lakeland cold storage facility last weekend, possibly by a naked man.

    The Polk County Sheriff's Office says this naked man stole a large black and white swan sculpture, upper right, from a Lakeland storage facility last weekend. Surveillance video showed the man walking into Lakeland Cold Storage. [Polk County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Fennelly: Dirk Koetter's apology no way to keep this fidget spinning


    TAMPA — It all began with a fidget spinner.

    This tweet from the Bucs, mocking the Falcons' 28-3 lead they lost in the Super Bowl against the Falcons, prompted a public apology from head coach Dirk Koetter, who called it "unprofessional and not smart."
  5. Jeb money trickles into Putnam's bid for governor


    Money from a Jeb Bush super PAC has made its way into Florida’s 2018 governors race.
    A year ago, Bush’s Right to Rise PAC put $1,171 in money