Lightning strikes tanker -- twice
By Capt. Allen Herritage, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 07, 2003
GANCI AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan (AFPN) -- Twenty minutes before landing, all systems were normal, the mission had gone flawlessly and the crew of “Shell 02” was ready to complete another successful refueling flight supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. But 10 minutes and two lightning strikes later, the only thing resembling “normal” aboard the aircraft was the poise of a well-coordinated aircrew.
The KC-135 Stratotanker crew, from the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, was returning here Aug. 4 after refueling Danish F-16s that were providing close-air support to coalition forces in Afghanistan. As the tanker descended for home, slight precipitation beaded on the windshield when the aircraft entered an area of continuous clouds.
“We were in a descent at about 20,000 feet. The weather radar didn’t show any signs of severe weather nor were there any reports of it,” said Capt. Ervin Powers, aircraft commander.
The crew was looking forward to the same uneventful landing their Danish coalition partners had just experienced minutes earlier when they heard a loud crack.
“There was a bright flash and a loud noise,” said 1st Lt. Stephanie Daniels, the co-pilot.
The aircraft had been struck by lightning. Powers immediately asked if everyone was OK as Daniels scanned the instruments and engines to make sure all vital systems were still running properly. Airman 1st Class Ryan Thomas, a boom operator, backed-up both pilot and co-pilot to make sure no one was missing anything.
“I knew we needed to descend immediately,” Powers said.
Aided by Marine Corps air traffic control liaisons, the crew was able to communicate the need for an immediate descent to the Kyrgyz controllers in the tower.
“This wasn’t the normal call to request permission to descend,” said Daniels. “Without the Marine liaison, the language barrier would have forced us to spend more time flying in the bad weather while explaining our intentions. They really helped us get down quickly.”
With the lightning strike behind them, the crew regrouped as they neared the bottom of the cloudbank. Seconds before punching through the thick weather, the aircraft was struck by lightning for the second time in eight minutes.
“This one was big, much brighter and louder than the first,” said Powers. “It hit the crew entrance, which is right under the cockpit. It sounded like a sledgehammer had been slammed against the side of the cockpit. I couldn’t believe it, I’ve been struck by lightning once in flight, but I’ve never even heard of anyone getting struck twice!”
With the ground now in clear sight, Powers quickly declared an in-flight emergency, ensuring first priority to land.
“We repeated what we had done for the first strike. Stephanie checked the instruments and engines while communicating to air traffic control while I concentrated on flying,” said Powers. “I didn’t want to miss our landing and have to take off again into that weather.”
About 10 minutes after the second strike, the crew landed the damaged KC-135 without further incident.
“After all of that, worrying about whether or not the engines would function or if our landing gear would descend, the only thing that didn’t work on the aircraft was my windshield wiper,” Daniels said.
“This was a perfect example of Air Force training coming together,” Powers said. “This was the first deployment for both the co-pilot and boom operator, who have a combined 300 flight hours. They performed flawlessly, like experienced crewmembers.”
The aircraft sustained visible damage to the crew entrance hatch, which looked like it had been hit with a 12-gauge shotgun slug, and a two-foot section was blown off the top of the tail. The damage, which is still being assessed, will probably keep the jet off the flying schedule until it is rotated back to the United States, officials said.