The Defense Department yesterday released the names of three airmen killed when a KC-135 tanker crashed near Chon-Aryk, Kyrgyzstan, on May 3. They were assigned to the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron, Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. The cause of the crash is under investigation. Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft break into three parts in the air and hearing an explosion.
I wrote a few years ago about the Air Force’s long and painful attempt to field a new fleet of tankers, which are among the oldest planes that the service flies. This latest crash brings to mind a fatal accident in 1999, when a tanker with the Washington Air National Guard went down near an air base in Germany after its horizontal stabilizer spontaneously locked into an extreme “nose-up” position. The aircraft pitched, becoming almost perpendicular to the ground, and then stalled and crashed short of the runway. All four crew members aboard died.
The Air Force grounded 350 tankers and inspected their stabilizers. Investigators never determined the cause of the malfunction, but the crash provided yet another reason to replace the KC-135 fleet.
The Air Force and its primary contractor, Boeing, probably can’t build the new tankers any faster. But if this latest crash is found to be the result of a mechanical defect, that will add new urgency to the process, just as it did 14 years ago when old tankers started falling out of the sky.