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This article was Originally Published on May 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 2

KC-130 That Hit Mountain Had No Night Vision

The Marine KC-130 tanker plane that crashed into a mountain in Pakistan last January was not equiped with night-vision equipment.

By Steve Vogel

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The Marine KC-130 tanker plane that crashed into a mountain in Pakistan last January was not equipped with night-vision equipment, which has been installed in some Marine KC-130 aircraft in the United States and, according to aviators, might have prevented the accident. All seven crewmembers aboard the plane were killed in the deadliest incident involving U.S. forces in the Afghanistan war.

The Marine Corps has nine KC-130s that have been modified so they can be flown by pilots using night-vision goggles (NVGs), but none has been deployed in the war.

The decision not to use those planes is being questioned by some Marine aviators, who say tankers flying in the Afghanistan theater routinely fly at night into unfamiliar, primitively equipped airfields in mountainous terrain.

"Why is the Marine Corps flying KC-130s over there without night-vision goggle capability, when the capability is there?" asked a former Marine KC-130 aircraft commander. "Why were you operating those airplanes in that environment when you have other choices?"

Marine Corps officials said eight of the nine KC-130s modified for night-vision goggles are assigned to Marine Reserve squadrons.

They defended the Marine commanders' decision to select KC-130s from active-duty squadrons, even though they fly older, less well-equipped planes.

Lt. Col. Russ Jones, an aviation officer with Marine headquarters at the Pentagon, said night-vision goggles provide a "safety margin" for KC-130 pilots.

But he said that until two investigations into the crash are completed, it is too soon to say whether they would have helped. "I have no clue whether goggles would have made any difference in the mishap," he said. "The jury's out."

The KC-130R, which was carrying fuel bladders on a resupply mission, crashed Jan. 9 while trying to land at night at the Shamsi military airfield in a remote area of southwestern Pakistan.

However, aviators familiar with the aircraft say circumstantial evidence suggests night-vision goggles might have prevented the crash. There are early indications that there was no mechanical failure and the plane apparently issued no distress call.

Also, Shamsi is considered a difficult airstrip in a mountainous valley, and the night of the crash was moonless, with strong crosswinds reported.

Witnesses said they saw the plane circle the base twice before crashing into a mountain on its third pass. These reports, some aviators said, suggest the pilot may have had trouble finding the runway at Shamsi, which like many airfields in Central Asia has no radio navigational aids to guide pilots.

"It was making its third attempt to land when it crashed," said the former KC-130 commander, referring to those witness reports. "He couldn't find the runway. You have [night-vision goggles], and that's not a problem."

A military flight crew member who said he had flown into Shamsi aboard a C-130 about a month before the accident described the airfield on an Internet message board as "a challenging strip at night" and said that crashing into the mountains "would be very easy to do especially if they had other problems distracting them."

Night-vision goggles take available light, including from the stars and moon, to illuminate what to the naked eye is a dark landscape. A mountainside that may otherwise be difficult to see would be plainly evident with the goggles.

Night-vision goggles are not as important for large, four-engine transports such as the KC-130 as they are for helicopters or fighter jets, and several military pilots questioned whether they would have prevented the accident. The KC-130 is routinely flown safely at night without goggles, they said.

To use night-vision goggles, cockpit display lights must be modified to avoid "blossoming out" the goggles with flashes of light that could disturb a pilot's vision.

Eight KC-130Ts built in the 1980s have been modified to fly with night-vision goggles and are assigned to Marine Reserve units, including four to a squadron in Newburgh, NY, and four to a squadron in Fort Worth. One modified older model is assigned to an active-duty squadron on the West Coast.

The main reason the Reserves have more modernized planes than the active-duty Marines is that Congress in recent years has mandated that many new weapons systems remain with the reserves to ensure that it does not become a hollow force.

Marine Lt. Col. Ken Hopper, commander of the Fort Worth squadron, said the goggles would be useful to KC-130 pilots in Afghanistan.

"Once you fly with NVGs, you don't ever want to fly without them, because they're that good," he said. "It definitely helps if you're going into an unlit field or with blackout operations."

In late January, several weeks after the accident, the KC-130 squadrons in New York and Texas received activation orders and each was to prepare to send detachments overseas, including the modified KC-130s.

Jones said the decision to activate those aircraft was "not in any way, shape or form" connected to January's accident, and he said no decision has been made on where to send the planes.

Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, who retired last year as head of Marine aviation, said that because the KC-130Ts are assigned to the Reserves, it was difficult for the Marine Corps to send them to war. "In this case, it would be a political issue," he said, since it involves taking civilians away from their families and jobs.

However, President Bush gave broad authority to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in September to call up Reserves. More than 75,000 National Guard and Reserve troops had been activated by February 17, along with hundreds of aircraft.

Reserve units do not have the same readiness as active units, Jones said. But he and other aviators said the Reserves are well trained and can be quickly brought up to a level of full readiness.

The KC-130 is the Marine Corps' multi-role, fuel-carrying variant of the C-130 Hercules, a military transport that has been in service more than four decades. January's crash was the first fatal one involving a KC-130 since 1970.


© 2002, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

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