The San Diego Union-Tribune January 11, 2002
No distress calls heard from plane
By Jeanette Steele
They were on a cargo mission, and the cargo was fuel.
The large amount of diesel on board contributed to the fierce fireball that lighted the sky after the Marine KC-130 Hercules from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station hit a mountainside in Pakistan on Wednesday, said Lt. Col. Carl Parker, commander of Miramar's VMGR-352 squadron.
Pakistanis reported the plane circled a remote air base twice, preparing to land. Parker said yesterday the plane was on approach to the Shamsi military airfield in southwestern Pakistan. The crew apparently issued no distress calls, he said. On the third pass, the KC-130 grazed the top of a mountain and crashed, exploding into flames that could be seen 20 miles away.
The crash, which U.S. officials said appeared to be an accident and did not involve hostile fire, resulted in the largest death toll in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
First Lt. James Jarvis, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan, said the aircraft took off from Jacobabad, Pakistan, and was making the first of four scheduled refueling stops.
Although it was dark, the crew was not wearing night-vision goggles, Parker said.
The Marines normally use the KC-130 for in-flight refuelings of helicopters and for troop and cargo delivery, evacuation missions and special operations support. The plane that crashed carried seven crew members: two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer, mechanic, loadmaster and a radio operator.
This plane was delivered new from Lockheed Martin in 1975, according to the company. Parker said he wasn't familiar with the plane's maintenance history during more than three decades, but said the squadron's planes lead the fleet in mission readiness.
Despite the plane's age, the military has upgraded the model to what he called high quality -- though not state-of-the-art -- flying systems, including global-positioning devices. He compared the plane's avionics systems with those used on a commercial airliner.
Defense experts and former pilots have said they knew of no history of mechanical defects with the KC-130s.
"Is it known to be a problem aircraft? No," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense watchdog group based in Virginia. "The Marines have been flying KC-130s for decades."
Asked if the crew might have been overburdened by the number of missions it was flying, Parker said no and added that the crash wouldn't alter flight schedules in the war zone.
"Of course we're concerned about the tempo, but that concern transforms into increased vigilance," he said. "What we're doing right now is what we trained for, and we know how to do it."
A replacement aircraft from Miramar will replace the lost supply plane, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington yesterday that "my understanding is that there is no evidence that it was anything other than an aircraft crash."
Rumsfeld downplayed reports that the plane exploded in the air.
"There are always going to be eyewitnesses that have different impressions as to what they saw," Rumsfeld said. He said that because it was an air refueler, it had bladders of fuel aboard and that "the fireball occurred, according to the best evidence we have, as it hit the ground not before it hit the ground."
Marine Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., yesterday said efforts to recover bodies of the crew members from the crash site are under way but remain difficult.
Marine recovery teams could barely find their footing as they converged on the wreckage in the Lundi Mountains where the plane went down.
"There is a Marine security force at the site," Lowell said. "At this point we have no reports of any bodies being recovered. We do expect an additional team to reach the site to provide further expertise and assistance."
The team had earlier made it to the site but then withdrew. Lowell said it was his understanding that foul weather might have been a factor in the decision to withdraw.
The Shamsi airfield is in a remote corner of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, an area of deserts and mountains. It has been used as a forward staging point for U.S. operations in the U.S.-led war to crush Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network and the Taliban regime that allowed the organization to use Afghanistan as a base.
Parker said it might be an "uncomfortably long time" before the military recovers everything it wants from the crash site. The crews' remains will be flown to Dover Air Force Base for autopsies and then transported to the United States for individual burials with full military honors, a Miramar spokesman said.
Copyright 2002 The San Diego Union-Tribune