FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. - It's been more ten months since a Fairchild KC-135 air crew crashed during a refueling mission in Kyrgyzstan and Thursday morning the U.S. Air Force will finally explain what caused the tanker to break up in mid-air.
Right now the United States couldn't fight a war or even get to most battlefields without KC-135 tankers so when one of them crashes finding out why is a matter of national security.
Captains Mark Voss and Tori Pinckney and Tech Sergeant Tre Mackey were killed May 3, 2013 just 10 minutes into their aerial refueling mission. Their aircraft, dubbed Shell 77, had just taken off from the Transit Center at Manas, an airstrip halfway around the world that was Fairchild's home away from home.
From Manas, Spokane-based air crews refueled warplanes supporting coalition forces on the ground in nearby Afghanistan.
"And each and every day they are saving lives because they are passing fuel to receivers, fighter aircraft, bomber, reconnaissance aircraft that are engaging bad folks on the ground and taking care of business," Colonel Dwight Sones, the former commander of the Transit Center at Manas said during a 2010 interview.
KXLY traveled to Manas in 2010 and was scheduled for another visit last year when word came that a tanker had crashed just moments into its mission.
"I was working in the field and heard the sound of explosions, saw a great fire. That fire fell and broke into three pieces when it hit the ground," one villager said through an interpreter.
Because the first photos from the crash site showed the downed tanker was assigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, it seemed initially Fairchild would be spared from the tragedy. Unfortunately the community found out within hours a Fairchild air crew was flying the aircraft for that day's refueling missing and the bad news hit the local community hard.
"I remember them as three great airmen, that makes it harder for me to know them, but I'll be able to remember them that much more. I will always remember their smiles. All three of them," 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander Colonel Brian Newberry said.
While Spokane mourned the loss of the crew of Shell 77, the Air Force set out to find out what caused the crash. For example, investigators immediately tested the transit center's jet fuel to make sure it wasn't contaminated. They listened to conversations the crew was having in the cockpit the moments before their plane was torn apart.
"Any time there is an aviation accident the Air Force takes great pains to get the information so we can continue to be safe as we refuel freedom," Newberry said.
Air Force investigators have studied cell phone videos that show the tanker falling to the ground in several burning pieces. The smoke led to a spot where the fuselage, including the cockpit, had crashed into a ravine. But, in a totally different location, search teams found parts from the rear of the aircraft that showed no signs of fire damage.
Most significantly, the rudder of the plane had separated and was missing from the tanker's tail section.
Shell 77 had been torn apart in mid-air and caught fire only after the break-up.
The reasons why that happened will be answered by the Air Force's accident investigation board on Thursday.
"That will be publicly releasable information to the public on the accident and that will likely come out in March and we will make that available to you so you can let the community know how our airman lost their lives," Newberry said
The cause of this crash is important to more than just the friends and family of the crew. Did this plane break apart because it was 50 years old? Do air crews need more training to help them overcome the series of problems that brought Shell 77 down?
On Thursday the community will finally have some of those answers.
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