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Sources: Shell 77 was torn apart in mid-air over Kyrgyzstan

Sources: Shell 77 was torn apart in mid-air over Kyrgyzstan

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. - One day after the last Fairchild KC-135 tankers returned home from Kyrgyzstan there is new information regarding the causes of the crash that claimed the lives of three 92nd Air Refueling Wing airmen there last spring.

Captains Mark Voss and Tori Pinckney and Tech Sergeant Tre Mackey were killed when their tanker broke apart in the skies above Kyrgyzstan on May 3, 2013.

Their aircraft had its tail torn off in mid-air and for the past ten months a pair of independent investigations has been trying to figure out why.

The first investigators to visit the crash scene must have been puzzled by what they saw. The fuselage of the tanker was mangled by the impact and still smoldering while, in a totally different location, 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.

Because other Fairchild crews based at the Manas Transit Center still needed to fly their daily refueling missions over Afghanistan, the Air Force wanted answers about what may have caused the crash as quickly as possible.

"We will never forget those airman who gave their lives on the altar of freedom and as we go forward here, it's our job to make sure that doesn't happen again and there's two different reports out there that help us identify how we can make that better," 92nd ARW commander Col. Brian Newberry said.

The first report from the safety investigation board relied, in part, on the tanker's cockpit recorder, what mechanical problems the crew was having with the plane and how the pilots were reacting to them. That information was shared with other tanker units just two months after the crash in the interest of preventing future accidents.

However it took much longer to figure out what caused aerodynamic forces strong enough to tear off the tanker's tail. The reasons why that happened are answered by the Air Force's accident investigation board.

"And 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 airmen lost their lives," Newberry said.

KXLY sources say there are a number of factors that created the moment when this speeding, heavily loaded plane simply could not withstand all the forces that were being put on the airframe.

One question that comes up is the age of the aircraft Fairchild is flying, with some of them up to 50 years old. Could that be a factor in the mishap? The Air Force has been working to get to the bottom of that, even studying the molecular condition of the metal where the plane broke apart. It should be noted that these tankers are regularly being inspected for signs of metal fatigue.

The Air Force is already looking to replace its aging fleet of tankers by upgrading to the newer KC-46, which is slated to enter into the inventory over the next few years. The KC-46 will eventually replace the KC-135 as well as the KC-10 tanker, which the Air Force has put on the chopping block, phasing out its entire KC-10 tanker fleet in a proposed Defense Department budget to be released in March.

More details about the cause of the crash will be known when the accident investigation board releases its findings in mid-March.