Running an Air Force isn't an easy thing to do, especially when you consider the hardships those related to the flying mission after to undertake. One of the ways of boosting the morale of the troops is to allow the part of the Air Force that doesn't fly airplanes, that is to say most of the Air Force, a chance to partake in aviation now and then. This is often extended to family members.
— James Albright
My wife has flown on a few of the Air Force airplanes I was checked out in, usually as a part of one of these programs. In fact, she flew on an EC-135J, a sort of sister ship to this EC-135N. As far as I can remember, we would never put a spouse into a pilot's seat.
This accident report says "There is no evidence that the presence of the passengers in the crew compartment contributed to, or caused, the accident." I disagree.
- The report notes that the runaway pitch trim was easily handled if handled quickly, but the pilot's response appears to have been delayed by 8 seconds. I think the presence of a spouse in the other pilot's seat was a distraction.
- I was flying the EC-135J when this accident report came out. Members of the investigation team spoke to various units flying similar aircraft to brief the report and a few things that we not in the report. At our briefing, the speaker said that the aircraft pitch over to the point another spouse, standing in the cockpit, was thrown forward into the instrument panel, preventing the pilot from pulling the throttles to idle, extending the landing gear, or extending the speed brake handle. Each of these measures could have mitigated the dive.
Given the situation, there wasn't much the pilots could have done once the pitch over occurred. But, in my opinion, the presence of family in the cockpit must have been a distraction and allowing someone who wasn't a qualified pilot into a pilot's seat had to have been a factor.
- Date: 6 May 1981
- Time: 1050
- Type: Boeing EC-135N
- Operator: United States Air Force
- Registration: 61-0328
- Fatalities: 17 of 17 crew, 4 of 4 passengers
- Aircraft Fate: Destroyed
- Phase: En route
- Airport: (Departure) Dayton-Wright Patterson AFB, OH (KFFO)
- Airport: (Destination) Dayton-Wright Patterson AFB, OH (KFFO)
- On 6 May 1981, EC-135N, Serial Number 61-0328, call sign AGAR 23, departed Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, at 1005 Eastern Daylight Savings Time (EDT) on a routine training mission. On board the aircraft were 17 crewmembers and four authorized passengers. The flight proceeded uneventfully as planned for approximately 45 minutes. Then in a few brief moments, a sequence of very rapid events resulted in a crash with the loss of all onboard.
- At 1049:48 EDT, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost radar contact with AGAR 23. The aircraft was cruising at Flight Level 290, at .78 Mach while performing a navigational training leg. The aircraft commander, Capt Emilio, occupied the right pilot seat and a passenger, Mrs. Emilio, occupied the left pilot seat. Also in the crew compartment were the 2 navigators, Lt Col Frederick and Capt Fonke, and 2 passengers, Mrs. Fonke and SSgt Brundige.
- For undetermined reasons, the aircraft pitch trim moved to the full nose-down position. The aircraft then a rapidly pitched over, most likely upon release of the auto-pilot, and induced sufficient negative "G" forces to cause the generators to trip off line, resulting in the loss of all AC electrical power. The pitch trim could not then be moved electrically. This condition, while unusual, can be controlled if prompt corrective action is taken; however, if corrective action is delayed approximately 8 seconds, the aircraft pitch angle will be greater than 30 degrees nose-down in the airspeed in excess of 350 knots indicated airspeed. Under these conditions, the aircraft cannot be controlled until the pitch trim is moved toward neutral. While it is evident that recovery was delayed, the reason for the delay is unknown. The aircraft became uncontrollable and entered a steep descent. During the rapid descent, an explosion occurred at approximately 1300 feet above ground level followed immediately by catastrophic failure, and complete break-up of the aircraft.
Source: Accident Report
- EC-135 aircraft, S/N 61-0328, had 4 passengers on board during the mission. Two passengers were wives of crewmembers participating in the HAVE PARTNER Program (TAB 4.1.). One passenger, SSgt Joseph T. Brundige, Jr., was an Administrative NCO assigned to the Wing. He was onboard as an official observer for an orientation and motivation flight. The fourth passenger, Michael W. Reilly, was a Contract Engineering Technical Services representative For Bell and Howell Company. He was onboard the aircraft to complete an engineering evaluation of the recorder system recently installed by his company. All passengers were manifested in accordance with proper directives.
- Pitch trim was full nose-down as determined from the aircraft wreckage. The cockpit pitch trim indicator recovered from the aircraft wreckage indicated full nose-down trim (3.5 units nose-down). This indicator is a strong mechanical structure that should continue to indicate accurately after the force of impact. Additionally, the horizontal stabilizer trim jackscrew was recovered from the wreckage and indicated full nose-down trim. Since the jackscrew can be changed only by rotation of the screw, there is no possibility that the position of this jackscrew could have been altered by impact forces. The pitch trim is driven by an AC motor. Once AC electrical power is lost, the pitch trim cannot be electrically changed, but may be manually driven by the pitch trim wheel. This is a slow, laborious process which would require approximately 35 revolutions to return the trim from full nose-down to zero. Additionally, the stabilizer trim cut-out switch was found with the safety cover raised in the switch in the "cut-out" position; presumably activated by the pilot in an effort to stop the trim from driving to a more extreme position.
- The aircraft AC electrical system is powered by 4 generators, 1 on each engine, driven by a constant speed drive from that engine. A characteristic of this system is that the generators will trip OFF under conditions of negative "G" forces. This may occur at "G" forces as high as .2 positive "G." Conditions of flight during an abrupt pitch-over maneuver, resulting in negative "G" sustained for more than 2 seconds, would result in loss of all AC electrical power.
- At 1049:48 EDT, FAA lost radar contact with the aircraft. The aircraft was cruising at flight level 290 at .78 Mach and was performing a navigational training leg. Navigational legs are normally flown on auto-pilot, and FAA altitude readouts showed the aircraft was within 100 feet of assigned altitude, characteristic of auto-pilot flight. The aircraft commander, Capt Joseph Emilio, occupied the right pilot seat and a passenger, Mrs. Peggy Emilio, occupied the left pilot seat. Also in the crew compartment were the 2 navigators, Lt Col Benjamin B. Frederick and Capt Donald V. Fonke, and 2 passengers, Mrs. Linda Fonke and SSgt Joseph T. Brundige. This phase of flight, the navigational leg, was the least demanding on the pilot and was the logical time for the passengers to come forward to view the cockpit area. There is no evidence that the presence of the passengers in the crew compartment contributed to, or caused, the accident.
Source: Accident Report
The cause of this explosion was undetermined; however, the aircraft was in an unrecoverable condition at the time of the explosion and a crash was already inevitable.
Source: Accident Report
USAF Aircraft Accident Investigation, EC-135N-4950 Test Wing, Serial Number 61-0238, Frederick, Maryland, 6 May 1981