Voices From an Old Warrior, Why KC-135 Safety Matters – A Book Review

Boeing built eight hundred and twenty C-135 airframes including all variants, delivered to the U.S.A.F between 1957 and 1965. Voices From an Old Warrior, Why KC-135 Safety Matters by Christopher J. B. Hoctor (Copyright 2013 by Galleon’s Lap – 1st Edition Electronic version only, 2nd Edition is the 1st printed copy, Copyright 2014), is a one-hundred-forty-four-plus-page work which delves into the history of the C-135 and its variants. What makes this book stand out is that it is not as much about airframes and specific performance figures (although much data and history is included in this book too), but the rather detailed safety history of the type. Seventy-seven C-135 airframes, mostly KC-135 Stratotankers, have been destroyed in accidents. Not all have been fatal, but over six hundred aircrew and passengers have perished in accidents associated with the C-135 aircraft types since the type was first operational by the U.S.A.F. in 1957.

Mr. Hoctor’s experience with the KC-135 is substantial… he was a boom operator and boom operator instructor on KC-135As for much of his twenty year Active Duty career. He held various planning staff and operational positions too, on the KC-135 and KC-10.

File photo: Boeing NKC-135R 61-0320

The main body of the book – some 79 pages arranged by date of incident – details the losses of aircraft, how many and who the victims were – and the cause of the accident. There are reproduced newspaper clippings, complete with photos from various local news journals. The styles of writing and reporting from half a century ago struck me with their straightforwardness and the matter-of-fact military attitude towards military accidents, which were more common in the early part of the KC-135’s operational use. Some interesting reading for me included the details of the type’s first major accident, a world record attempt gone wrong from Westover AFB in 1958, the year before I was born. I grew up nearby, with a forty minute ride from the base. Some of the accident topics that I found include:

File photo: KC-135A, 509th Bomb Wing, Pease AFB

The original KC-135A version had water-injected jet engines whose thrust was augmented when demineralized water was introduced to the combustion process. The water was moved from tanks to engines by a pair of pumps – one for the engines on the left wing, and one for the right side. Unfortunately, in one accident, a pump failed and both engines on one wing stopped producing full takeoff thrust, causing an asymmetric situation that led to a crash. The author pointed out that because of the circumstances of this accident, a fleet-wide plumbing change that paired pumps with the inboard two engines and outboard two solved the extreme asymmetric situation.

Fuel pumps submerged in fuel tanks possibly led to six explosions, and these six are covered in the main body of the book as they fell in chronological order. In the final chapters, an in-depth look at similar accidents – and thus the six fuel pumps as a whole, are discussed again, and the result was that a certain amount of fuel is now mandated to be kept in the tank as a cooling measure; some pumps had overheated in dry tanks.

Then there were multiple accidents during refueling missions between nuclear-armed bombers and tankers. The series of crashes ultimately put an end to these “Chrome Dome” and other – named missions before a full scale nuclear explosion took place. There are good discussions about these dangerous missions.

File photo: Boom deployed, a KC-135R operated by the Air Education and Training Command (AETC)

I always enjoy learning more aviation history, and this book has a large amount of it… from the aircraft’s design to detailed operational mishaps. Some of the bases mentioned are long closed down, and the Strategic Air Command is no more (at one point SAC controlled most of the KC-135 refueling fleet), so there is ample mention of out-of-business air wings, other units and closed bases. Some of the C-135 losses were not just tankers either; they performed aerial command post, reconnaissance, and plain old transport duties. Two non-C-135 accidents are included in this discussion too; both have parallels with KC-135 accidents.

While the main thrust of this book is the history of C-135 safety and accident investigation, there are other takeaways too. You can find history about the manufacturing of the C-135 family, human factors of military crew members which lived with the unique pressures of SAC and Air Mobility Command (AMC) air crews, military base and organizational history, and even some of the early B-707 marketing material that Boeing published. Full of information. I highly recommend this book for military aviation enthusiasts, students of aviation safety, and aviation historians who might especially like the copied material from accident reports, newspaper clippings, and Boeing marketing material.

File photos of C-135 variants are not part of the book or representative of any accident – Editor

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