08.16.2011 Uncategorized 20 Comments

Only pilot who landed a KC-135 after two engines ripped off in combat writes his story

Lt. Colonel (Ret) Kevin Sweeney is the only person to have ever landed a KC-135, the military version of the Boeing 707 after the two engines on his left wing were ripped off in flight during a night combat mission in Desert Storm.

General Charles Horner, top commander of Allied Air Forces during the Gulf War,  recently honored Lt. Col. Sweeney on the 20th anniversary of the eventful date and said “I consider that the finest piece of airmanship to have occurred during the entire Gulf War.”


By Kevin Sweeney

We were scheduled to do a double turn on night combat missions in Desert Storm with the first take off time at dusk, 17:24 local time. All was going as planned on the KC135 aircraft with me as Captain and my 3 crew members.  As we were flying up to the scheduled refueling area we hit a little turbulence which was no cause for concern.  But a split second later our aircraft went from a smooth, stable flight to totally out of control.  The nose of the airplane gyrated from 15 degrees nose up to 15 degrees nose down. We were violently rolling wing tip to wing tip in a Dutch roll, which is a vicious unplanned rocking maneuver rolling wing tip to wing tip at over 90 degrees of bank with roll rates in excess of 85 degrees per second.

We were dropping out of the sky like a rock – a heavy rock, we were crashing! We were in severe oscillations and rolls and I remember thinking, “I can’t let this airplane roll inverted since the airplane might be unrecoverable if we roll inverted.”  The maximum roll rate for a KC-135 airplane is 45 degrees per second and we were exceeding that by at least a factor of two.  I remembered my emergency procedures simulator training – I grabbed the speed lever brake and pulled it full up.

It worked!! As we were beginning to regain control of the aircraft the fire warning lights lit up in the cockpit for both engines on the left wing.  I could feel in the stick she was too heavy to fly.  I lowered the nose over to try and gain airspeed while at the same time asking the other pilot to begin dumping fuel.  I used the interphone to ask Steve Stucky, the boom operator, to scan the left wings to see how bad the fires were.  Very quickly he radios back 6 words I will never forget, “They aren’t on fire, they’re gone!” Our 4-engine aircraft was reduced to 2 engines.

We were at maximum weight, barely under control, over hostile territory, at night, and two engines were gone…. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” my navigator began to squawk electronically on the transponder. One of my crewmembers soon asked me, “Are we were going to have to bail out?”  To which I responded to the most important question of my life, ‘No stick with me, we’ll be fine.’

After a harrowing hour and fifteen minute flight back to the nearest acceptable landing field we started to get into position to make a landing attempt.  One of the primary requirements was to get the landing gear down and because of our lack of hydraulic pressure the landing gear would have to be lowered manually.

I asked my boom operator, Steve Stucky, how long it would take to manually lower the landing gear which was his job.  Steve said, “7 minutes.”  I said, ‘Steve we don’t have 7 minutes, we only have 3 or 4 minutes, can you do it?’  My hero, Steve Stucky, said, “Yes Sir, I will get them down,” and Steve got them down.

Impeccable execution under such extreme circumstances enabled our crew to land the mortally injured aircraft. It is a compelling story illustrating how you and your team can overcome any obstacle.

Then came the best thing I ever accomplished in my Air Force career.  Upon a successful landing the Air Force wanted to award the three officer members of the aircrew the renowned Distinguished Flying Cross and to the boom operator, the non-officer, Steve Stucky, an Air Medal – a wonderful medal, but not the legendary Distinguished Flying Cross.

In unison, without hesitation, and unbeknownst to the lowest ranking member of the aircrew, the three officers refused the Distinguished Flying Cross.  We put together a 35 page document and personally met with a four star General.  It took a year, but on the same day, on the same stage, and at the same time all four members of the team, the aircrew received the medal they earned and deserved, the United States Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross.

One of our engines after it landed in the desert in Saudi Arabia. I think it was beyond repair. I have a couple of pieces of it as a personal memento.

This flight inspired me to write my first book, Pressure Cooker Confidence:  How to Lead When the Heat is On

See an interview with Kevin Sweeney at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFCMrhuKuGk

20 Responses to “Only pilot who landed a KC-135 after two engines ripped off in combat writes his story”

  1. Jerry Beaty says:

    I was the on-duty Assistant Director of Operations at Jeddah the night of your incident. Though not a necessary part of your story, I can confirm that your story is not only true, but yet another confirmation of your outstanding flying skills. Sticking up for your Boom Operator was true testament to your aircrew’s integrity. I remember the final report related that the HF antenna was ripped from the aircraft as the engines passed over/by the fuselage and vertical stabilizer. Maybe inches away from real disaster.
    Jerry Beaty, Lt Col (Ret), USAFR

  2. Leslie Day says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. The plane you and your crew landed so successfully sir, was my father’s plane.

    He was the lead crew chief of this aircraft out of Grissom at this time. While he was not deployed with it at that time, he received many calls thanking him for maintaining his aircraft to the greatest of his abilities. I’ve always heard this story since I was a kid, but I’ve never heard the actual story of departure to landing. My dad was always so proud of all of the 135s he was crew chief on. He has since passed in 2015, but I was always so proud of his 36 years of service. Just as I am proud of you sir, for your dedicated service, and for being the only pilot to land an aircraft with two lost engines on the same wing. The story still survives at Grissom to this day.

    Thank you for giving a great story of my dad’s career even more meaning. Proud of all of our military members every single day! Past, present and future!

  3. Lt.Col Chuck Miller (Ret) says:

    I think there are two different incidents reported here as one-in-the-same. The photo of the tanker missing two engines was a KC-135E (it had two remaining engines that were TF-33 fanjet engines). The dialog in the comments identify the aircraft as from Beale and KC-135 58-0071, was from Beale and was a KC-135Q. It was subsequently re-engined rom the KC-135Q to KC-135R (with the CFM-56 -F108 engine) and redesignated a KC-135T. The picture shown did not have the big-KC-135R engines. There were 19 KC-135Es subsequently retrofit from E to R models, out of fleet of 161 converted to KC-135Es, but 58-0071 was NOT one of those 19. I was the KC-135 (Logistics) Weapons System Manager (1976-’81), and architect of the KC-135E (it was my “brain storm” that created the E conversion). I also was a KC-135Q pilot and instructor at Beale from 1968-’73, and have tail number listings of the A, Q, E, and R mission designated series.

  4. Dennis Rhoads says:

    Gutsy flying.
    Have a question for you.
    Did you know a KC-135 pilot and flight simulator instructor Major (last I knew) Ted Keith?
    He was an instructor pilot at either Beale AFB or Mather AFB where I ran into him in the simulator.
    He and my father Cecil flew KB-50s in Europe.
    Keith had some stories to tell also.

  5. Jason Manning says:

    I was an Active Duty Fuel Specialist (standing in for the 452 ARW at March, AFB) at that Base, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and I remember coming to work and driving past that jet sitting on the runway at the Civilian Terminal. I fueled them from the bladder system we constructed inbetween the runways and taxiways. An amazing recovery and landing. I still talk about that incident to this day. Glad you guys made it back to the base safely. There was a great article on this, in one of the Air Force Safety Magazines. It had pictures of the thrashed inside of that jet.

  6. Ron Dishman says:

    At the time I was serving with the 101st Air Refueling Wing Bangor Maine The acft was in one of are hangars for awhile before she went all the way home I I had just came back from my my recent deployment I spent 24 years working on tankers great job of flying by you and your crew sir

  7. Mick Baier says:

    Great job, Kevin. I was so proud of all of you guys that evening. Great teamwork. Superb airmanship that all aviators should emulate

  8. Walt says:

    Thanks. My Dad had talked about that before and I always was amazed. He had talked about retrieving the engine. I wonder where that plane is now. I wonder if Boeing could have ever imagined what this plane would accomplish in its years of service. Thanks to all the men and women who serve. Every duty is important. Never underestimate your contribution to our great nation.

  9. C. Tubbs says:

    Real moral of story is don’t try to fly precontact with your cellmate at night at near max grossweight when you’re not current and qualified and you keep all the engines

  10. Mike Wales says:

    Lt. Colonel (Ret) Kevin Sweeney,
    Damn fine job landing that plane. I was a Senior Airman driving the first crash truck off your nose when you stopped rolling. We took one look at that aircraft and were amazed it was not in flames! Great job.

  11. SMSgt C. Cyr, Retired Boom Operator says:

    Perfect job Sir! I well remember the safety briefing on this incident & followup discussions. 135’s are still tops!

  12. Rick Tiers says:

    T. Smith, I remember that incident as I was the one who launched you that day.

  13. Mike Lazaroff says:

    Nice! And, as a retired MSgt, I am very happy to see that the officers stood up for what was right and insisted that the enlisted aircrew member received the same decoration that the officers were awarded. Way too often the enlisted guys really get shorted – THANK YOU so much for making sure that didn’t happen this time!

  14. Jeff Corlett says:

    Colonel Sweeney, were you the KC-135 pilot that flew 1 Ringy-Dingy from Offutt to Barksdale for Bomb Comp in, I believe ’85 or ’86?

  15. Jeff Corlett says:

    Outstanding job and relaying of story. When things don’t always go as planned in the Air Force, we seem to adapt and stay cool. Very nice job sir. You made me proud when I read it.

  16. Kenneth W Karsteter USAF Retired says:

    To Lt. Colonel (Ret) Kevin Sweeney, OUTSTANGING JOB by you and your entire crew.

  17. Kenneth W Karsteter USAF Retired says:

    T Smith there are no and I repeat no instances of wing tip strobes causing that much loss of wing tip on the “Qs”. There were instances of loss of wing tips but not of 21ft of wing from such instances.
    What you may be thinking of is the incident that happened down at Mather AFB. Aircraft 58-0071 lost 21ft 7in of the left wing due to a static discharge causing a low order explosion in the #1 Reserve tank. This was attributed to atmospheric conditions, not the strobes nor was it a lightning strike. Of this instance I have personal knowledge as I was the Boom Operator on that flight! Just setting the record straight for you.

  18. willie cruz says:

    this story really hit home .I was just back in the air force station at beale 1981 > I just reported and was given a tanker balls 71 the plane that lost the left reserve tank .it was a hanger queen for over a year and half.She was a in bad shap .I was married to her she was basket case.Isaid to my self what did i do to deserve this I worked her for over 1.5 years . We gave it all the we had but the big day finely came .Capt tucker .taxi her to the hammer head ran all 4 balls to the wall shut down eng service the water restart the engs taxi back to the hammer head .ran all 4 to mil power started the water and off she went made me feel as though now i was a beale banded .After all that work i was sent back to kadena back to the 376s/w thats where i learn about the habu and the kc135q by the way the tail no # of the plane was 0071 i called her the born again virgin. take care crew chief off

  19. T.Smith says:

    In 1979 I was a Crew Chief on a Q model 135. We took off out of Beale to do a refueling mission. Got to altitude and the Co Pilot switched on the wing tip strobes so the SR could see us and immediately the right wing tip blew off!(21 feet).Apparently, the vent for the reserve tank was plugged and built up vapor which the strobe light ignited.We dumped fuel over the Pacific and flew back to Beale, no problem! I LOVE MY 135’s!!

  20. Jeff Brown says:

    Awesome job Sir! I was an active duty POL troop deployed there at that time. I remember seeing the A/C and hearing the story that next morning as I was starting my day. I will never forget the sight of the plane or the engines when they were recovered. It’s hard to believe that was a little over 22 years ago!

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