May 31st, 2021

Memorial Day: Thunderhawks Tribute

Each Memorial Day I attempt to post a blog remembering one of my fellow airmen who “gave the last full measure of devotion”.  As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the First Gulf War I earlier in the year reposted blogs remembering PJ Weaver and Steve Phillis

Altogether I lost 13 brothers in arms to death while I was on active duty.  Today I memorialize several who died in the same crash, The Thunderhawk Crash of 1987.  Ironically, I received an email message about that crash just this week.  The Thunderhawk Crash of 1987 has been the most read blog of all time at Doctor Aviation.  That encourages me that many want to memorialize those six that crashed serving their country on March 13, 1987.  Memorial Day 2021, Lest we Forget…

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The AF Thunderbirds

The Idea

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.

General 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.

Fairchild Selection

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.

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The MIGHTY KC-135A: Type flown by the Thunderhawks

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.

The Aftermath

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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 plus 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)

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

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