For a Few Short Months During the 1980s They Were an Impressive Bunch But Their Story Ended Tragically
The year was 1987. The Cold War still had the potential to go very hot and exceedingly heavy at any time. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was America’s aerial strategic weapons delivery system; their mission was nuclear deterrence and nothing else. But during these heady times SAC organized their very own demonstration team. The team only existed for about five months between November 1986 and March 1987. So the videos below are extremely rare. They were shot on 3 March 1987 by an EC-135 pilot from the perimeter fence adjacent to runway 12 near Building 306 at Offutt Air Force Base (AFB) in Nebraska. They were uploaded to YouTube by busesdeerandsound100. Stick around after the videos for the story of the Thunderhawks.
Part 1- KC-135A, B-52H, KC-135R, and KC-10A Demonstrations.
Part 2- FB-111A Demonstration.
Building a Team
SAC’s demo team, eventually dubbed the Thunderhawks, began with a single Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker based at McConnell AFB in Kansas during November of 1986. Planned maneuvers for the tanker included a maximum performance takeoff and climb-out, high-speed maneuvering, and a low-altitude refueling demonstration. It was decided to add a 92nd Bomb Wing Boeing B-52H Stratofortress based out of Fairchild AFB near Spokane in Washington the following month. The BUFF would also perform a maximum performance takeoff and climb-out, a simulated low-level bombing run, a high-speed pass down the axis of the runway, and steeply-banked turns. The KC-135R and the B-52H would also perform a fairly sedate simulated aerial refueling.
Trading More Power for Less
In early January of 1987 the KC-135R was removed from the demonstration because of the distance between Fairchild AFB and McConnell AFB. The decision was made to replace the KC-135R with a KC-135A model tanker also based at Fairchild. When Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), General John Thomas Chain Jr. USAF, reviewed the two aircraft performing their demo on 23 January 1987, the crews were ordered to “keep the aircraft closer to the field.” The demonstration was also altered to include additional maneuvers by the KC-135A, which had previously only flown the simulated refueling portion of the profile.
Perfecting the Routine
The Thunderhawks performed the reworked demonstration for the SAC Headquarters Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (SAC ADO) on 13 February 1987 at Malmstrom AFB in Montana. The demonstration crews were again ordered to modify the demonstration profile in preparation for another review of the performance by CINCSAC scheduled for the next month at Offutt AFB in Nebraska. Added to the performance profile was a maneuver dubbed “the snake”, designed to better showcase the KC-135A while it maneuvered in close company with the B-52H. Also added for the Offutt review were individual demonstrations of the KC-135R, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extender, and the General Dynamics FB-111A bomber. The performance for CINCSAC at Offutt AFB was impressive- the videos above captured it.
Competing With the Legends You Know Today
The result of the demonstration for CINCSAC at Offutt was that SAC initiated short-term and long-term programs for implementing the Thunderhawks demonstration program by mid-March of 1987. CINC-SAC Chain was a former F-100 Super Sabre and F-4 Phantom II pilot. His thinking was that SAC could perform demonstrations at airshows in the spirit of the USAF Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels. It is not known if there were additional demonstration flights at other Air Force bases or civilian airfields after the CINCSAC review at Offutt that day in March.
Tragedy at Fairchild I
What is known is that on Friday, the 13th of March 1987, just ten days after the videos linked in this story were recorded, during a practice demonstration at Fairchild AFB, KC-135A USAF SN 60-0361 crashed on the base with the loss of all souls on board and another on the ground. The aircraft was caught in a combination of an unrecoverable steeply-banked maneuver at low altitude and the influence of wake turbulence generated by the B-52H. 361 had just performed a minimum interval takeoff (MITO) behind the B-52H. The combination of the initial separation/avoidance maneuver to port and the turbulence generated by the BUFF was too much to overcome.
Honoring the Fallen
The crew of the KC-135A that perished in the mishap at Fairchild AFB was instructor pilots Lieutenant Colonel Michael W. Cornett, Captain Christopher Chapman, and Captain Frank B. Johnson, navigators Captain James W. Litzinger and First Lieutenant Mark L. Meyers, and the refueling boom operator, Staff Sergeant Rodney S. Erks. Even worse, another refueling boom operator and member of the Thunderhawks team, Senior Master Sergeant Paul W. Hamilton, was killed on the ground when the KC-135A crashed into the vehicle from which he was watching the practice.
Investigation and Changes Made
It was later discovered that maneuver restrictions were waived in order for the Thunderhawks to fly the demonstrations as planned. We won’t get into the details of the investigation here but the resulting report is available for review online. One result was the immediate cancellation of all scheduled SAC aerial demonstration programs. The Thunderhawks were disbanded and a set of regulations for SAC air show flights was eventually published. The high points: heavy aircraft are only allowed to perform straight and level passes over a fixed point. All aerobatics are prohibited and no more than four heavy aircraft may fly in a formation.
Tragedy at Fairchild II
Unfortunately, despite the revised regulations and the first tragic mishap at Fairchild AFB, seven years later on 24 June 1994, B-52H-170-BW SN 61-0026 of the 92nd BW, crashed, also at Fairchild AFB, after performing an unrecoverable steeply-banked low-altitude maneuver somewhat similar to the one that brought down the KC-135A that crashed there. The safety restrictions put in place pursuant to these two tragedies seven years apart at Fairchild may have taken much of the thrill out of the demonstrations flown by Air Force heavy aircraft, but the flights are indeed safer for the crews as well as the spectators. Aviation is inherently risky. Effective management of that risk should be the overarching goal.