By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 29, 2006
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- When Senior Master Sgt. Drwight Davis, 436th Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief on duty, responded to an emergency notification April 3, he wasn't sure what to expect.
"Anytime you see an aircraft not sitting on its wheels, it is worse than you expected," said Sergeant Davis.
More than twenty firefighters arrived to find a downed C-5 Model B broken into pieces, lying on a grassy patch of land on the southern backside of the base.
Training overrides feelings of shock and horror
"You just have to put your emotions aside and let your training take over," said Airman 1st Class Joseph Wysocki, 436th CES firefighter, who arrived on scene around 6:40 a.m.
After personnel rescued a total of 17 survivors and made the site safe, their next priority was to stabilize the site and collect critical information for the Safety Investigation Board.
"It seemed weird to work on this aircraft everyday, and then you see it in three pieces -- it's pretty shocking," said Senior Airman Kris Blake, 436th Maintenance Squadron Aero Repair journeyman. He and his coworkers inserted wooden shoring, which resemble giant multi-layered children's toy blocks, underneath the nose and other aircraft sections to stabilize it. Without shoring, SIB investigators and recovery workers couldn't enter the plane due to the potential for the more than 800,000 pound chunk of steel to roll over on someone.
A team effort
Specialists from units throughout the base have worked at the crash site day and night to help gather data.
"I was struck by the eager reactions of so many young Airmen that just wanted to help," said Capt. Justin Longmire, 9th Airlift Squadron chief of safety and interim safety board investigating officer until the official Safety Investigation Board convened days later.
"From the fire fighters on scene to the communication troops setting up the SIB office to the Command Post controllers disseminating information, they all wanted to stay late, work hard and do whatever they could to help with the process," Captain Longmire said.
SIB and AIB defined
The SIB is convened following a Class A mishap to investigate the circumstances surrounding the event and make recommendations to prevent similar occurrences. Class A mishaps are those defined by one or more categories: loss of life or aircraft, or costs that exceeds one million dollars.
The SIB is composed of various members, such as pilots, maintenance personnel, airframe specialists, etc., from around the Air Force and DoD, as well as civilian contractors.
The SIB team has approximately 30 days to investigate and forward their conclusions and recommendations to the convening authority, who in this case is the Air Mobility Command Commander Gen. Duncan J. McNabb.
The SIB investigations are privileged information and only a limited amount of personnel have access to the information. The SIB results are not released outside Air Force safety channels or to the public.
After the SIB concludes an Accident Investigation Board is convened. The AIB is also chartered to investigate the circumstances surrounding the mishap. Unlike the SIB, the AIB produces a report that is later released to the public. The AIB also has approximately 30 days to complete its investigation, but the board sometimes requires more time if necessary. Members of the SIB can not participate on the AIB.
A long recovery
In the interim before the SIB convened, Dover Airmen quickly made the transition from securing the crash scene to one of preserving and collecting information to help SIB investigators form a "big picture" overview of the mishap.
One crash site specialist believes a picture, or in his case a diagram, is truly worth a thousand words -- especially for inspectors who need to understand a million pieces of the accident puzzle instantaneously.
His office's produces diagrams and maps to help bridge the gap for investigators to reference again and again.
"We assist the board by marking information (like bits of debris and skid marks) and determine how far it is from the aircraft," said Master Sgt. Richard Penny, 436th CES Survey and Drafting Shop engineering superintendent.
His shop has been working around the clock since the crash to provide map coordinates that pinpoint the location of each piece of evidence scattered around the aircraft.
They also help provide board members a broader picture so they can try to build a sequence of crash events.
The survey and drafting specialists also help determine where the plane first hit, even minute details such as when the wing tip lodged into the ground and the wheels came down.
This isn't Sergeant Penny's first crash cite. His long crash recovery career began in Scotland in 1987.
"This is the eleventh crash I had a hand in (the recovery efforts)," said Sergeant Penny.
It's an occupational hazard that Sergeant Penny and other Airmen who work around complicated transport vehicles, especially aircraft, understand, accept and squirrel away the image of crashes somewhere in the back recesses of their mind.
However rare, the potential for mishaps is the reason why military personnel continually train and prepare for them.
"It gives you a great sense of purpose and pride in what you do (to be involved in crash recovery efforts), and all our training pays off during mishaps like this," said Sergeant Penny.
"Most of (my subordinates) are (young) Airmen, who haven't experienced anything like this before, and they're doing a good job! They're learning a lot, and it is good experience for them," he said.
Building a better plan
Airmen weren't the only ones to glean lessons from the crash. Dover AFB's leaders also found ways to extract lessons learned from the situation.
"(Air Force bases) have an immediate action plan for mishaps like this, which are reviewed annually," said Captain Longmire. "Wing leadership reviews the plans and solicits inputs from each organization involved in the process, which results in a plan that gets better each year."
During the day of the crash and in the days that followed, that plan provided a solid foundation for hundreds of Dover Airmen to blend together seamlessly. They executed the plan as they previously trained: they responded to the emergency, secured the site and preserved the evidence for the SIB.
"From my perspective, I observed the Dover team shift decisively from our normal every day mission to emergency response and recovery. It was quite impressive to witness, and an honor to be involved in the process."