U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks says the fatal crash of a B-52 bomber at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane last Friday appeared to be in defiance of Air Force rules against "acrobatic" flying.
"We need to wait for the investigative report," said Dicks, "but eyewitnesses say he was flying in a pretty aggressive manner." Dicks said the pilot of the B-52, Lt. Col. Arthur "Bud" Holland, 46, of Suffolk, Mass., had a reputation as an aggressive flyer.
A Bremerton Democrat actively involved in defense issues, Dicks became involved after a similar accident at Fairchild seven years ago.
In that incident, a KC-135 tanker crashed when it flew too close behind a B-52 and was forced down by the turbulence. Six airmen and one civilian on the ground were killed.
Afterward, Air Force regulations were changed to prohibit trick flying of large planes such as a KC-135 or B-52. After the Friday accident, Dicks said he was assured by top Air Force officers that no stunt flying was involved.
As recently as Sunday, Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said at an appearance at McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma that the pilots of the most recent crash were only practicing normal flying, such as takeoffs and landings.
"The things we do in air shows are what we regularly do in our training missions," Widnall said. "We have to keep training." But today Dicks said eyewitness accounts and a videotape he has seen of the crash appear to indicate otherwise.
He has asked to see additional videotape of the accident. It's possible, he said, that the Air Force investigation may ultimately conclude that the pilots were engaged in standard flying maneuvers.
But Dicks said what he has seen concerns him.
"He was flying real low, then he flew straight up, then leveled off," Dicks said. He said the eyewitness and the tape also indicate that instead of a 45-degree banking turn, as would be flown normally, the B-52 was lying at a 90-degree angle with the ground.
Quoting a former Air Force officer, a Spokane newspaper Sunday said Holland was an expert pilot and instructor but also a risk-taker. They cited a 1992 incident in which he did a low-level runway pass before putting a B-52 into a steep climb and turn, in front of a crowd of 100,000. The maneuver was shown to have popped rivets out of the air frame because of the stresses involved.
Air Force regulations already prohibit "intentional spins, vertical stalls and steep dives, as well as any other maneuver resulting in abrupt acceleration." They also say "acrobatics of any kind are strictly prohibited."
But he said the pilots must be told repeatedly not to try to do stunts with large aircraft.
"It is a question of judgment," Dicks said. "This was a tragedy. But there were 300 instructors working only 200 feet from where the plane crashed. It could have been a much more terrible accident."
He noted the chances of tragedy could be vastly magnified if stunts were performed at an air show, which is what the pilots were preparing for.
Others killed in the crash were Lt. Col. Kenneth Huston, 41, the navigator, of Avenal, Calif.; and two instructor pilots, Col. Robert Wolff, 46, of Chicago and Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, 38, of East Liverpool, Ohio. They were preparing for an air show that had been scheduled to help overcome the trauma of a mass shooting at Fairchild only days before. The air show was canceled.
In Spokane today, Gov. Mike Lowry was among the estimated 500 people attending a memorial service for the four airmen killed.