SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The first F-35B Lightning II pulled up to the KC-130J Super Hercules aerial tanker, took its sip of fuel from the left-wing tank and pulled away, just as planned.
The Miramar-based KC-130J – call sign “Raider 50” – was flying the Sept. 29, 2020 refueling mission to support the fall class of the Weapons and Tactics Instruction Course run by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
Initially, the plane was to fuel F/A-18 Hornet fighters. But they were no shows, and instead the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 crew awaited the second F-35B to tap the fuel line, which was extended off the external fuel tank under the right-side wing.
When the plane came, things quickly spiraled as the F-35B, call sign “Bolt 93,” collided with the tanker.
Capt. Michael Wolff was flying in the right seat of the Super Herc as the aircraft commander. Next to him was Maj. Cory Jones, the copilot flying for the first time since the birth of his son. The actions of the aircrew over the next 12 minutes – fighting the aircraft for control and safely landing it in a field with no serious injuries – would earn the pilots the Distinguished Flying Cross, the military’s second-highest medal for valor that an aviator can get.
“It was a really violent collision,” recalled Wolff, adding that momentary chaos all happening within “1.2 seconds or something. Not enough time to really react and do anything.”
A ‘Hole in the Plane’
The collision sent headsets flying off the pilots’ heads and iPads off their mounts. “Anything that was loose in the cockpit went flying,” Wolff said earlier this month during a phone interview with USNI News. “It was pretty violent… I got my headset back on, grabbed the yoke and I got the plane back under control.”
The cockpit crew quickly realized the crash ripped a hole into the KC-130J, Wolf said.
“You have a slight, some rapid decompression going on,” he said. “And it’s also very loud.”
The outside air now screamed into the fuselage, adding to the fireworks of lights and alarms raging in the cockpit. Cascading warning and caution messages went off as the displays lit up.
Filled with shock and adrenaline, the crew grappled with the emergency at hand aboard the four-engine turboprop.
The collision destroyed both of the KC-130J’s right-side starboard engines. But “the impact did not damage our ailerons, elevators or rudder, so we still have all of our primary flight control surfaces,” Wolff said. “At that point, I’m like, OK, let’s get figuring out what’s going on and the best course of action.”
“That’s when – it’s kind of cliché – the training kicks in,” he said.
They tapped into what they knew about the KC-130J, knowledge built from hours of flying and training in simulators practicing procedures for handling emergencies in the air and on the ground. Aircrews are famously known for their strict attention to and following of detailed checklists, seemingly unconscious habits and embedded memory built from repetitive training.
“We start running through everything,” Wolff said, “and figuring out where to go and communicating to the crew and then outside” to air traffic control.
Fireworks in the Sky
Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers were handling typical afternoon traffic, according to an air traffic control recording posted online, when someone radioed seeing “pyrotechnics” about five miles away “or a collision or something like that?”
Several minutes later came the Marines’ emergency call.
“L.A. Center! L.A. Center! This is Raider 5-0 declaring an in-flight emergency. Major collision with Bolt-93. We have two engines out and we are leaking fuel and might be on fire. In an emergency descent at this time. Raider 5-0,” Wolf said, according to a recording of the emergency call.
Wolff, his voice calm amid the cascading problems, added: “We are declaring an emergency. We still have partial control of the aircraft.”
At one point, an aircraft traffic controller asked if the Marines were headed toward the Imperial County Airport near El Centro, Calif. To the south along the long, fertile valley that includes the Salton Sea is Naval Air Facility El Centro, in Imperial County, and to the north are smaller airfields, including an airstrip in Thermal, southeast of the Palms Springs area.
The collision and ATC radio calls prompted chatter about the location of the KC-130J and the F-35B. At one point came the call to keep the frequency unclogged.
Unbeknownst to Raider 50, the F-35B crashed into the desert, but the F-35 pilot ejected before impact.
The pilot, with the “Green Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, landed safely, with no major injuries, according to Marine Corps officials. Officials have yet to release the investigations into the collision.
On the ground, someone camping captured on their smartphone the jet with light smoke trailing behind as it flew down to the ground, and posted the video on Twitter. Other people told local media they had spotted a parachute.
Black smoke trailed Raider 50 as fire bellowed from the burning fuel tanks.
Inside the Super Herc, momentary chaos turned to a nervous focus to retain control and get their aircraft safely to ground.
“I can see the far right engine – the #4 – from my seat, but I can’t see the #3,” Wolff said. The crew in the rear compartment “gave me confirmation that [the] thing was toast, and we pulled the fire handle and [made] sure nothing got worse.”
He needed to know if the flames were dissipating or if fuel was still flowing from the wing, he said, as “that communication from the back [crew] is extremely vital to get down safely.”
With fuel trailing from the pods, the wing was possibly on fire. With the starboard landing gear obviously damaged, the crew focused on landing as soon as possible. They had practiced scenarios with two engines out, but never with multiple emergencies.
“We do train to handle compound emergencies, including two engines out on one side,” such as a bird strike, Wolff said, but “not all together at once.”
Adding to the dangers, the KC-130J was loaded with fuel held in the pods under the belly and wings.
But there was no option to ease the danger and dump fuel “due to time constraints and the possibility of fire” in flight, he said.
The airplane’s high altitude was a plus, as it provided space and time “to build airspeed and begin the descent,” Wolf said.
They scanned the area and figured they could land at the Thermal airport, known as Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport.
“We had a lot of open space between where we were and there – the Salton Sea and a lot of farmland – and we’re not worried about populated areas,” Wolff said.
The crew was on track to land their aircraft on the runway, but the plane started to turn right as a result of the malfunctions and distance, he said. That wasn’t planned as they approached Thermal airport – its 5,000-foot runway sits at 114 feet below sea level – about a half-mile from the runway.
Initial Shock, Then Teamwork
A typical KC-130J crew is five – two pilots and a flight engineer or a qualified loadmaster in the cockpit and two loadmasters in the back who also act as observers during the refueling mission. On the mishap flight, eight Marines were aboard, with an instructor and loadmasters getting training to maintain currency.
In the immediate seconds after the collision, Jones thought of friends he’d lost in two fatal KC-130 crashes and of his infant son, born just 19 days earlier. Training then kicked in, that muscle memory of checklists and procedures and actions memorized to respond to flight emergencies.
Grabbing the controls, he recalled in a Marine Corps video posted online about the incident how he “started moving them and realized that the airplane was actually flying. That was kind of like the shock moment, like, okay … maybe we’ve got a chance here.”
Talking to the crew, Jones got no response before he realized his headset was on the floor. He put his headset back on and checked in with the rest of the crew before they all assessed the situation and the damage to the plane.
“We gotta get this plane on the ground,” he thought. “We’ve got to do … whatever we can to save everybody’s life.”
They’d have few options if they lost all flight control.
“We don’t have an ejection seat,” Jones said. “We’ve got parachutes [for the crew], but not enough for everybody.”
Despite its right-side engines going out, the KC-130J was still flyable.
“We worked together as a team,” Jones said, “and we just took it step by step … for the entire descent until we were able to walk away from the airplane.”
Over those 10 to 12 minutes, the flight crew got to work.
“You could hear it in the voices of everybody with the severity of the situation, but we all had a job to do,” Jones said. Nobody quit or froze up, and “everybody remained focused on what they had to do because we all knew that it was going to take a team effort to safely get that aircraft on the deck.”
“Each person on that crew played an integral role in getting the aircraft safely on the deck, from our flight engineer to all the load masters in the back,” he said.
Mission to Land
About 10 minutes after the collision, the KC-130J made the approach to Thermal.
But “there was no way for us to continue our approach to the airport. The aircraft made an uncontrolled right turn due to getting below our minimum control airspeed,” Jones recalled. Now assigned as a crew resource management program manager at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., he was awarded his DFC medal during a Feb. 28 ceremony there.
Outside of the aircraft, farm fields stretched out before them, and they quickly decided to land in one. The crew still had power during the descent.
“It was controllable most of the way down,” Wolff said.
Nearer to the ground, dropping the remaining landing gear and setting flaps slowed the speed, and “that’s when you run into some controllability issues.”
They set the airplane down in a cauliflower field, full of wet dirt, said Wolff, who received his DFC medal during a May 25 ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Calif.
“It was definitely a relief. I’m still kind of surprised how smooth the touchdown was,” he said.
He estimates the airplane skidded some 300 to 400 yards before stopping. “It wasn’t quite like the movies where you see you have like a 747 that plows through … We came to a stop pretty quickly,” Wolf said.
It wasn’t long before he and the rest of the crew exited the airplane.
Lessons and Crew Training
The multiple, simultaneous emergencies the crew faced went beyond what Wolff and Jones had normally trained for in the flight simulator.
Lessons from the mishap weigh on Jones’ mind, particularly in his current assignment.
“The biggest lessons learned from this event [is] … to continue to emphasize emergency procedure training and continue to make the emergency procedures training realistic for each crew position,” he said, and “continue to make sure that we are instilling that in the new pilots and the new load masters, and that they understand how each person on the aircrew plays an integral role in mission accomplished.”
“We work on doing things just over and over and over and over again” to make it habitual and instinctual, Jones added.
Wolff said the experience gave their training “a new meaning. You do these compound emergencies in simulation. It is great training. You have to replicate handling a lot of stuff at once, even though, relatively, it doesn’t normally happen. Now this is a case where … you never know what’s going to happen.”
“The training that we do works,” he said. “We had eight people … coming together, coordinating and everyone remained calm and just working together as a team.”
He’s read the mishap report and believes “the end result speaks for itself how everyone handled themselves.”
After stepping away, the reality of what happened – and what they went through – started to sink in.
“To be able to walk away definitely makes you appreciate the little things in life and every day that you have,” Jones said. “So it’s given me a better outlook on that. It’s made me … respect the aircraft more and its capabilities. The maintainers that keep the aircraft flying every step of the way, the manufacturer … every piece of the puzzle that went into getting us safely on the deck that day.
“Taking that amount of damage – an unheard of amount of damage and still being able to fly and get the crew on the ground – speaks volumes to that airframe,” he said.
The traumatic flight became a bond.
“Everyone was in shock that it happened,” Jones said.
Although some of the Marines have moved onto other duty stations, they keep a group text and occasionally check in with each other.
“Maybe we’ll all get back together and go get our photos there [at Miramar] with our V.F.W. hats on,” he said.
Wolff said he was “just happy, that everyone … walked off the plane with maybe a couple of bruises but nothing serious … I’m not sure if it will ever sink in.”
That day, Jones had texted his wife, “We just had a mishap. I won’t be home for dinner.”
Wolff’s family in Pittsburgh hadn’t seen the news reports that had widely circulated in the San Diego area. He messaged his parents, saying “I can’t discuss the details but I’m fine. I’ll call you later.”
The refueling mission marked the final flight for KC-130J, bureau number 166765. The collision and fire damage and emergency landing rendered it a spare parts contributor. It took about a week for Marine Corps crews to remove the aircraft from the field, after investigators combed through it and VMGR-352 maintenance personnel brought in a crane and salvaged parts that would be used for other aircraft.
“It was a lot of work just taking that plane off the field and getting the usable parts,” Wolff said.
They salvaged the rear stabilizers, the tail of the aircraft, placed it outside the squadron, and painted in the squadrons’ Raider black, as a display and reminder.
“We fly as a crew,” Wolff said. “I’m proud of how everyone handled themselves and kept calm.”
While the DFC is an individual award, he noted, “it’s still everyone coming together and doing their part. That one single action could be the thing that saved us in the end.”