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6th of February 1991

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

A 32-year-old US Air Force KC-135E (58-0013) aerial refuelling aircraft took off for an aerial refuelling mission, callsign "Whale 05", The crew consisted of 4 members; Captain, Co-pilot, Navigator and the Boom operator.

58-0013 with both left-hand engines missing (from public domain)

Take off was scheduled at 17.24 local time, at about the same time another KC-135 would be taking off, and flying on the same route as Whale 05. After take-off, Whale 05 climbed to an altitude of 25.000 feet (7.600 meters) as planned and with the autopilot engaged the aircraft cruised along approximately 1 mile behind the other KC-135 45 minutes after take-off the aircraft encountered the wake turbulence of the other KC-135. This caused the aircraft to roll more than 90º to the left, followed by a right roll of more than 90º. The captain deployed the speed brakes and the crew started to regain control of the aircraft.

Staff inspecting the damage on 58-0013 (source public domain)

During the roll events, both engines on the left wing (#1 & #2 engine) had fallen off the wing. With control regained the fire alarms sounded for both engines (Pratt and Whitney J57) and their pylons that had been ripped of the wing. On request of the captain, the boom operator checked the engines from the carbon, and she reported, no fire, both engines have separated from the aircraft. As they were early in their mission the aircraft still had 31.000 gallons (117300 liters) of fuel onboard. As a result of the engines dropping of the aircraft sustained damage to the following systems;

  • Fuel pumps failed

  • Landing gear

  • Lefthand wing, causing all fuel to leak from that wing

  • Hydraulic system

  • HF antenna ripped off

Luckily the engines did not hit the fuselage or the horizontal stabiliser.

A MAYDAY call was made and fuel was dumped to reduce the aircraft weight so it could maintain speed and altitude. The aircraft descended to 16.000 feet (4900 meters) and the crew carefully checked the aircraft controllability. Having ascertained they had full control of the aircraft the crew headed back to their base, 1 hour and 15 minutes away. On request of the crew, an ILS approach was made to the longest runway available. During the approach, the landing gear had to be deployed manually as a result of the damage to the hydraulic system. The aircraft touched down 1000 feet (300 meters) from the runway edge, with the use of the wheel brakes the aircraft was stopped on the runway. Several crews attempted to fly the mission in the simulator using the data from the incident flight, none made it back safely. All crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition for their achievement flying the aircraft back to its base while severely damaged.

58-0013 stored at AMARG, © Florida Metal

The aircraft was repaired by a team from Boeing and returned to operational duty. The aircraft last known location is at the AMARG facility in Tucson Arizona, USA, where the aircraft is in storage after being withdrawn from duty on the 7th of March 2007.

Editorial note; Different sources give conflicting names for the crews involved, as well as the call sign for the aircraft.

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