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Wings-level landing might have saved C-5 crash survivors

SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- A veteran C-5 Galaxy pilot said all 17 people survived the April 3 plane crash at Dover Air Force Base, Del., mainly because the pilot did his job.

Col. Udo McGregor said the “100 percent reason” everyone aboard survived the crash was because the pilot did a wings-level landing.

“The survivors are survivors because he put it on the ground wings level,” said the colonel, commander of the 439th Operations Group at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass.

The transport took off from Dover at about 6:20 a.m. bound for Spain and Southwest Asia. On board were Airmen and several passengers. Base officials said the aircrew noticed a problem with the aircraft soon after takeoff and the pilot turned the aircraft around to land back at the base.

But at 6:42 a.m. the aircraft crashed into a grassy field and broke up into several pieces. Base officials think the aircraft might have struck a utility pole, which cut off the aircraft’s six-story tail section. It had a quarter million pounds of fuel, but miraculously did not catch fire.

Colonel McGregor, a command pilot with more than 10,600 flying hours -- more than 7,000 of those in the Galaxy -- said there are others reasons why the accident cost the Air Force only a transport aircraft.

One is that the aircraft -- almost as long as a football field -- has many crumple zones.

“If you watch car commercials on TV and watch them do the crash testing -- the more metal you have -- the larger the piece of equipment -- the more the chance you have of survival,” he said.

And the cargo plane has so much cargo space below its wings that a wings-level landing gives those on board “a pretty good chance of surviving,” he said.

“It’s an incredibly safe airplane,” said the colonel from Savannah, Ga. “Very, very few accidents for the millions and millions of flying hours that it’s accomplished.”

The colonel has flown all over the world in the C-5. He knows the transport inside and out. The emergency that the Dover crew faced -- a heavy weight, three-engine emergency return -- is a “pretty standard” procedure for which Galaxy pilots are well prepared, he said.

“In this particular case, the experience level of the crew would suggest they’ve done it hundreds of times -- practiced it hundreds of times in a simulator,” he said.

Colonel McGregor has had to deal with similar in-flight emergencies during his 15 years at the helm of the heavy jet. More than once he has had to land a heavily-loaded Galaxy with only three engines. But with about a million parts, many mechanical things can go wrong with the aging aircraft, which entered the Air Force inventory in the June 1970. After so many hours in the air, the aircraft is bound to experience one or two emergencies, he said.

“That’s just part of flying something for an extensive amount of time that has this many moving parts,” the colonel said. “It’s a very complicated airplane.”

The colonel remembers a flight into Osan Air Base, South Korea, when the air conditioning turbine on his C-5 malfunctioned and filled the entire aircraft with smoke. The aircrew made an emergency landing and did an emergency evacuation of 73 passengers -- who exited down the slide from the passenger compartment on the back of the aircraft.

At Dover, the aircrew also used the inflatable slide to evacuate the aircraft.

Colonel McGregor said the aircraft has a great safety record. And the upgrades through which it is going -- like getting new avionics and engines -- will extend its life “a significant number of years.”

“I would say more than 20 years is probably a reasonable guess,” he said. And with the upgrades, “it’s probably even more than that.”

The colonel said two boards will now convene to find out the cause of the accident. The first, a safety investigation board, will try to determine what the issues or problems were. They have 30 to 45 days to come up with answers.

Then, an accident investigation board will convene to “find the magic BB, the causal effect -- the things or things that caused or created the accident,” the colonel said.

The accident investigation board will probably have to have some kind of resolution to the commander of Air Mobility Command by the end of May.

“So it’s a fairly rapid process,” he said.

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