An Air Force Mobility Command accident report released April 15 pinpointed the cause of a C-130J crash in Afghanistan last year: a forgotten night-vision googles case jammed behind the control yoke used to steer the plane.
The pilot had used the case so he didn't have to manually hold the yoke in place to keep the elevators as high as possible for unloading and loading cargo.
It was a tragic mistake, but the practice itself is long-standing.
To help unload cargo in Afghanistan on Oct. 2, the pilot of a C-130J Super Hercules jammed a control yoke in place by propping it up with a night-vision goggle case. The forgotten case was still there when he tried to take off, causing the crew to lose control of the plane and crash, killing 14 service members, contractors and allied troops, according to an Air Force Air Mobility Command accident report released April 15.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Kelly Jones, who has a retired chief master sergeant with more than 7,000 flight hours aboard a C-130, said that while it's not a common occurrence, pilots occasionally do need to raise the elevators on the tail of the plane to load for loading especially tall items. They do that by means of the yoke, which is typically used to steer the plane during flight.
"The elevator on the 130, just sitting static, droops down quite a bit," Jones told Air Force Times. "And to load that really high cargo, you've got to pull back on the yoke, raise the elevator, and get the cargo on. There's no official way to do that other than holding it up by hand."
Jones, who served as a flight engineer on C-130s from 1965 to 1995, said crews would sometimes use a wheel block — used to prevent aircraft from rolling while parked — to prop up yokes while loading or unloading cargo.
An Air Force investigation photo shows the elevators, mounted to the horizontal stabilizer, in a raised position. A night-vision goggle case was placed behind the yoke to hold the elevator control surfaces in the up position.
Photo Credit: Air Force
"It wasn't sanctioned, it was just something you did," he said. "Not always, just sometimes. It's the end of a long day and you're tired. Someone wants to stand up and walk around, you'd use something artificial to hold that up."
"We didn't have the hard night-vision goggle cases back then. If we had had those, I suppose we would have done the same thing," continued Jones, who is now the president of the Abilene, Texas, chapter of the Air Force Association.
The crew was offloading cargo while keeping the aircraft engines running, aiming to speed operations and takeoff time, Jones noted. In that scenario, the pilot and co-pilot may not have performed the full pre-flight check that includes ensuring no flight controls are blocked and that flaps and ailerons have a full range of motion, Jones said.
And with only the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, both wearing nigh-vision goggles, Jones said he's not surprised the NVG case was missed.
"Had there been a third of fourth set of eyes in the cockpit, I can't help but feel that that would have been caught. No way to tell that for certain, though," he said. "I hate to criticize anybody. It's so sad and so unfortunate that this happened. They were professional guys doing a great job in the service of their country and they just got caught in a bad situation, and it bit them."
Keith Wright, a spokesman for the Air Force Safety Center, said it was the worst C-130 crash in the last quarter century.
"In the past 25 years, this is the worst mishap, with regard to the loss of life of 14 crewmembers," he told Air Force Times. "Mishaps of this type are rare, but in an aircraft with a large crew, one mishap can cause the loss of several lives."
Over the past 25 years, C-130s have been involved in 23 Class A mishaps, in which someone dies or a plane sustains more than $2 million in damage, involving C-130s over the defined as accidents involving C-130s — dubbed "Class A mishaps" - in the lpast 25 years, Wright said, though not all involved loss of life. In 2005, nine airmen died when their C-130 crashed in Albania. In 2002, 10 were lost, and aAnother 10 airmen perished in a C-130 accident in 2002, and an accident in 1997 also killed 10, he said.
A forgotten case for night vision goggles jammed a control yoke, causing the October C-130J crash of that killed 14 people in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a newly released Air Force accident report says.
Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Jeromy Cross/Air Force
When the crew landed at Jalalabad Airfield in eastern Afghanistan and began offloading cargo, the pilot "raised the elevators mounted to the horizontal stabilizer by pulling back on the yoke," according to the report. That "provided additional clearance to assist with offloading tall cargo."
After holding the yoke by hand for a while, the pilot decided to keep it in place with a night-vision goggle – or NVG – case.
"However, because the pilots were operating in darkened nighttime flying conditions and wearing NVGs, neither pilot recognized and removed the NVG case after loading operations were complete or during takeoff," the Air Force said in a statement.
Once airborne — shortly after midnight local Afghan time — the aircraft started to pitch upward. The co-pilot thought the problem was a trim malfunction, "resulting in improper recovery techniques," the service said.
"The rapid increase in pitch angle resulted in a stall from which the pilots were unable to recover," according to the report. "The aircraft impacted approximately 28 seconds after liftoff, right of the runway, within the confines of Jalalabad Airfield."
The crash killed all 11 people onboard the C-130J. The plane also hit a guard tower, which killed three Afghan troops working there.
In October, the Air Force identified the six airmen killed in the crash: Capt. Jordan B. Pierson, 28, the aircraft's pilot, and Capt. Jonathan J. Golden, 33, the co-pilot; as well as Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Hammond, 26, and Senior Airman Quinn L. Johnson-Harris, 21, the two loadmasters.
All four were members of the 39th Airlift Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
Senior Airman Nathan C. Sartain, 29, and Airman 1st Class Kcey E. Ruiz, 21, of the 66th Security Forces Squadron at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., were also onboard as fly-away security team members to guard the aircraft, cargo, crew and passengers. The other five individuals killed aboard the plane were civilian contractors.
"Our hearts go out to the family members and friends of those killed in this accident," said Brig. Gen. Patrick Mordente, the head of the accident investigation board.
The aircraft itself was from the 317th Airlift Group at Dyess, the Air Force said. While operating in Afghanistan, the airmen were assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.
"We are all mourning the loss of these incredible young men, but no one more than those who lost their loved ones," said Col. Stephen Hodge, the 317th Airlift Group commander, in a statement shortly following the crash. "These airmen were our friends and our family, and the halls of the group and the skies overhead will never be the same without them. Though they are no longer with us, the memories of those whose lives they touched will remain forever."
According to Air Force investigative reports, there have been three major accidents involving the C-130 line of aircraft since 2013, not including October's incident.
In May 2013, a C-130J in Afghanistan was attempting to land when it ran off a runway and struck a ditch, destroying some of the landing gear. The right outboard engine hit the ground and lit on fire. There were no fatalities, though the plane sustained nearly $74 million in damages was done to the plane, according to the accident investigation.
In December 2014, a C-130H with the 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, collided mid-air with an Army C-27J. Both aircraft were able to land safely, and there were no fatalities. The accident iInvestigatorsion said crews for both planes were too reliant on automated collision warning systems, and didn't visually scan to look for other aircraft. The report estimated the collision resulted in $1 million in damages.
And in April 2015, an aircrew with the 413th Test Flight Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, a., was test flying an AC-130J when they lost control and the aircraft went down over the water. The crew was not injured. The accident report determined the pilots were performing an unsafe maneuver that is usually prohibited, but had been given permission to do it conduct the maneuver to test whether changes to the manufacturing process had affected the AC-130J's flight ability. The service declared the aircraft a complete loss, totaling $115 million in damages.
The worst recent C-130 accident did not involve the U.S. One of the aircraft belonging to the Indonesian Air Force crashed into a neighborhood in the city of Medan, Indonesia, on June 30, 2015, killing an estimated 140 people. That nation's government is investigating whether the military was allowing paying civilians to fly onboard, in violation of regulations.
But the population is also blaming the government, saying it's unsafe to fly the 50-year-old planes – especially since a similar crash occurred with an Indonesian civilian variant C-130 (dubbed the L-100) in 2009.
As for the U.S. Air Force, dDespite a drawdown in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Jalalabad is still a key area of activity and one of the main U.S. airfield. Airmen there are performing aeromedical evacuations, cargo runs, intelligence flights, and airstrikes when called upon.
Part of the reason is that tThe city of Jalalabad, — in the eastern part of Afghanistan and about 50 miles from the border with Pakistan, has become a hotbed for terrorists hoping to set up a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group in the nation.
Though far from the group's stronghold in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. Army estimated there were between 1,000 and 3,000 ISIS fighters across Afghanistan in December 2015, mostly centered in Nangarhar Province surrounding Jalalabad.
Concern about the growing insurgent threat has led the Army to leave its forward operating base in Jalalabad open – FOB Fenty – while other bases are being shuttered. And Secretary of Defense Ash Carter even visited the city in December to speak to U.S. troops.
"They are trying to create little nests wherever they feel there is an opportunity," Carter said of ISIS. "We have some information that suggests they seem to find an opportunity here in Nangarhar. That is really good information to have because it will allow us to focus our efforts on what they are doing in Nangarhar and make sure they don't have a nest here."
Pentagon officials said it is still unclear whether Afghan members of ISIS are in regular communication with ISIS leadership in Syria and Iraq, or if the extremists are just motivated by the group's ideology.
The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has also prompted clashes with the Taliban and al Qaeda, with the three groups sometimes fighting between themselves for territory and resources.
The Taliban reportedly claimed responsibility for the crash of the C-130J in October, but the Pentagon said the day of the crash that enemy fire was not suspected as a factor.