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

Published April 28, 2014

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.

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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.