May 25th, 2019

Memorial Day: Seven Lost Crewmembers

The is my Memorial Day Tribute to Seven Lost Crewmembers.  Each Memorial Day, I pay tribute to at least one fellow aviator with whom I served in the Air Force.  Two years ago, it was PJ Weaver and last year it was Steve Phillis.  Click on the highlights to read those tributes.  On March 13, 1987 I lost seven fellow aviators in one afternoon.

The AF Thunderbirds

The concept was known as “The Thunderhawks”.  It was an idea based off the successful Air Force demonstration team: The Thunderbirds.  The idea emanated from Omaha Nebraska, the home of Strategic Air Command (i.e. SAC).  General John Chain was the Commander.  Chain’s idea was to “spice up” air shows routines performed by the SAC crews.  The B-52 and KC-135 were the backbone of SAC.

Major General Bob Beckel

The idea was aided by General Robert “Bob” Beckel.  Beckel had been the Commandment of Cadets while I was at the Air Force Academy.  The first Academy grad to serve in the role.  He was charming, charismatic and immensely popular with the cadets.  Beckel served as a Thunderbird from 1965 to 1967 and was, in 1987, the Chief of Staff at SAC Headquarters. (Click here to see his full bio.

KC-135A: Type flown by the Thunderhawks

Fairchild Air Force Base was chosen to be the testbed for the demonstration team. Several senior pilots were tapped and began flying in early 1987.  I remember observing a practice one day, alongside of Jess Schloss, our Chief Boom.  We watched the KC-135 roar over the runway at about 200 feet and then pull up and to the right very aggressively.  “Big Boys with their Big Toys”, Jess observed.


On Friday, March 13, 1987 three pilots, a young navigator and a boom operator climbed aboard the Mighty KC-135 for a Thunderhawk practice.  A more seasoned navigator, Jim Litzinger, decided to jump aboard the flight at the last minute. 

During the practice the KC-135 flew overhead the runway and pulled up and to the right in a 90-bank turn.  The aircraft stalled and began to nose down.  There was not enough altitude to recover from the stall.  The aircraft crashed between the squadron building and the Base Exchange.  All aboard perished.  Paul Hamilton, observing on the ground was killed as well.  For more details on the flight itself, including photos, see a previous blog.

General John “Jack” Chain

The young navigator’s grieving dad pressed hard for General John Chain to be relieved of command.  Ultimately his efforts were not successful.  Chain retired from active duty in 1991. 

Thirty-two years later a memorial lies in the air park at Fairchild AFB devoted to the fallen aviators.  Their names and marker are below.  Even though they did not die in battle, they died serving their country.  Hence, these Seven Crewmembers deserve to be remembered on Memorial Day.

Michael Cornett Pilot

Frank Johnson Pilot

Chris Chapman Pilot

Jim Litzinger Navigator

Mark Myers Navigator

Rodney Erks Boom Operator

Paul Hamilton Boom Operator (on the ground)

Memorial to the Thunderhawk Aviators,
Water marks are from the Sprinkler System

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