‘We’re leaking fuel and we might be on fire’ How a Pair of KC-130J Pilots, Crew Saved Their Plane After a Collision with an F-35

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 […]

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

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’

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

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

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

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.

An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 takes off during exercise Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. US Marine Corps photo.

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.

Midair Maneuvering

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Michael Wolff, a KC-130J Super Hercules pilot with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), receives the Distinguished Flying Cross from Maj. Gen. Bradford J. Gering, 3rd MAW commanding general, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, May 25, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

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

Marine Corps Col. Stephen J. Acosta, the assistant wing commander for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), praises Maj. Cory T. Jones during a ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, Aug. 13, 2021. Jones is a KC-130J Hercules pilot assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 14 and was awarded the Order of Daedalians 2020 USMC Exceptional Aviator Award for his actions that saved the lives of his crew after an accidental mid-air collision that occurred during an exercise in September 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

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

Capt. Michael Wolff, a KC-130J Super Hercules pilot with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing addresses Marines after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, May 25, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

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.

Aftermath

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Corey Jones, a KC-130J Super Hercules pilot with Fleet Replacement Detachment gives remarks during an award ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, Feb. 28, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

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.”

Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.