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Report cites 'loss of situational awareness' in deadly Albania crash

By SCOTT SCHONAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 24, 2005

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Less than 20 minutes after taking off for a nighttime training mission, the plane’s crew knew they were heading straight for a mountain. Air Force Navigator Capt. James Cronin told pilots to turn, but the -130H Combat Talon didn’t have enough power.

The plane began stalling, but Cronin and co-pilot Capt. Surender Kothakota urged pilot Capt. Todd Bracy to keep turning or risk crashing into the ridge 50 miles southeast of Tirana, Albania. For 14 seconds, they struggled to maneuver out of the stall, make the turn and avoid the rising terrain, but never gained control. The plane smashed into the snow-covered ground at 120 mph on March 31, killing all nine on board.

The last radio communication came from the co-pilot: Two seconds before impact, Kothakota said they were too low.

An accident report released by the Air Force earlier this week determined that a “loss of situational awareness” by the flight deck crew caused the crash. Unexpected cloudy weather, inadequate planning by the crew and lack of experience flying nighttime, low-level missions over similar terrain contributed to that loss, wrote Brig. Gen. Michael Wilson, president of the accident investigation board.

The accident shook members of the 7th Operations Squadron based at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, where the aircrew was assigned. Shortly after the accident, Col. Dennis Jones, commander of the 352nd Special Operations Group, said it was “a critical time” for the unit.

Members of the squadron and the group could not be reached for comment on the crash report.

The crash illustrates the dangers special operations crewmembers face in war and on routine training missions. Combat Talon aircraft are primarily used to re-supply and transport commandos in dangerous areas. Many of their missions are at night and the aircraft must fly close to the ground to evade detection.

In March, members of the 7th Operations Squadron and associated units deployed to Albania for a two-week joint training exercise. On the day of the accident, two -130H and one -130P aircraft left on a nighttime mission to work on terrain-following and avoidance skills, airdrops and landing using night-vision goggles.

The planes were flying 300 feet above the mountainous terrain. The Combat Talon that crashed went by the call sign “WRATH 11.”

More than two minutes before impact, the report said the Electronic Warfare Officer, Capt. Gil Williamson, told the pilot that they were approaching the ridge. But the pilot, Bracy, didn’t initiate his climb until a minute later. When he did, it was at the wrong power, according to the report obtained by Stars and Stripes.

Seconds later, the navigator noticed the ridge two miles away and asked if they could make it.

A mile from the ridge, the co-pilot told the pilot they wouldn’t be able to clear it if they didn’t turn or climb faster. Nineteen seconds before the crash, the crew realized they couldn’t get over the ridge and had to turn right.

“The flight deck crew began to realize they were in serious trouble as the tone of their voices began to change and they were directing the [pilot] to increase his rate of turn to get away from the terrain ahead,” the report said.

Two other aircraft flying in the area spotted the crash site, but a rescue team couldn’t reach the site until early the next morning. The plane and the equipment on board — valued at more than $81 million — were totally destroyed.


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