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Sunday, August 18, 1996

Dyess C-130 crashes; no survivors By ROY A. JONES II
Military Editor

A Dyess Air Force Base C-130 cargo plane carrying gear for President Clinton crashed into a Wyoming mountain peak late Saturday, killing all aboard - eight Dyess crewman and a Secret Service passenger.

Late Sunday afternoon somber Dyess officials completed the task of notifying next-of-kin, then released the names of the Dyess victims. They were:

- Capt. Kevin N. Earnest
- Capt. Kimberly Jo Wielhouwer
- 2nd Lt. Benjamin T. Hall
- Staff Sgt. Michael J. Smith Jr.
- Staff Sgt. Michael R. York
- Senior Airman Ricky L. Merritt
- Senior Airman Billy R. Ogston
- Airman Thomas A. Stevens

Six of the eight victims have families in the Abilene area, and two are single, one source close to Dyess said.

Other information - such as ages, hometowns, family, and crew positions - was not available Sunday.

The Secret Service later identified the ninth victim as Agent Aldo E. Frascoia, 57, of Washington, D.C.

The agent was accompanying the equipment the Dyess plane was ferrying from Jackson, Wyo., where the first family had been vacationing, to New York City for the president's 50th birthday celebration.

There was no immediate description of the plane's cargo, except that at least one motor vehicle was aboard, said Capt. Nomi Russi, chief of public affairs at Dyess. An initial report that the vehicle was the presidential limousine was incorrect, officials said.

The four-engine, turbo-prop plane crashed in the Gros Ventre Wilderness about 15 miles southeast of the Jackson Hole Airport, along the northwestern edge of Wyoming and about 30 miles south of Yellowstone National Park.

The small public airport has no control tower and no radio contact with airplanes coming in and out.
It took recovery teams three to four hours on horseback and foot to reach the site of the crash - in mountainous terrain so rugged that a civilian plane that crashed near the same location in 1991 wasn't found until last summer - and where a military plane crash from World War II was not located for decades.

"At this point, within a few hours to a couple of days, you're just not going to know right away what actually happened," Russi said. "A board of officers is en route and will investigate it - a very, very thorough investigation. Hopefully the answer will come to fruition that way."

The plane was equipped with voice and cockpit data recorders. There was no word initially if the so called "black boxes" have been recovered.

Dyess officials do know that the crew answered the call for presidential support - a routine assignment - and left Dyess at 6:40 p.m. CDT Saturday. The plane belonged to the 40th Airlift Squadron, but the crew was a mix of 40th and 39th Airlift Squadron personnel, officials said.

The plane arrived at the small Jackson Hole Airport at 10:05 p.m. CDT and was on the ground for about an hour and 40 minutes, refueling and loading the presidential gear, Brig. Gen. Larry Northington, 7th Wing commander said.

He said he was told the aircraft took off at 11:45 p.m. CDT and crashed three minutes later.

The operations manager of Jackson Hole Aviation said the plane was loaded with about 35,000 pounds of fuel. Witnesses said the explosion when the plane hit produced a giant fireball and a mushroom-shaped cloud. The wreckage was still smoldering when would-be rescuers reached the scene three to four hours later, and they could locate no survivors, officials said.

Clinton, who had been vacationing in the Jackson Hole area, had left before the crash and returned to Washington early Sunday. Northington said the president telephoned him Sunday to express his condolences to the family and friends of the Dyess victims.

He said the president said he and the First Lady were "very saddened and shocked" by the crash and that it was "especially painful to him because they worked for me and did an invaluable service."

"He was very cordial and compassionate, very concerned," Northington said.

A Clinton administration official said the pilot reported mechanical trouble and had started to return to the airport. But Northington and others cautioned against speculating on why the plane went down.

In fact, Air Force officials questioned the source of the mechanical trouble call since there was no radio operator at the Jackson Hole Airport to report to.

"Whether they flew into the mountain or lost control for some aircraft reason, we don't know," said Jeff Brown, president of Jackson Hole Aviation, the airport's fixed base operator. "It could have been an in-flight shift of cargo or who knows, engine failure, the whole gambit."

Brown also said officials did not know whether the plane was off course. He said nobody had the plane on radar, but that they don't usually pick up planes on radar below 13,000 feet. The plane apparently crashed before reaching that altitude, probably at closer to 10,000 feet.

"No one I know of received any distress calls," Brown said. He added, "This territory around here is treacherous. You've got to follow the instrument procedures by the letter or you'll get in trouble."

Keith Benefiel of the Teton County Search and Rescue Team said the only pieces of the plane left intact were a piece of the tail section and several wheels.

The plane slammed into Sheep Mountain, known locally as Sleeping Indian Mountain, in the Gros Ventre Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The crash site was less than 1,000 feet below the mountain's 11,300-foot peak.

Although the plane exploded in a massive fireball that was visible for at least 20 miles, there was no forest fire because the crash site was in rocks above the timberline, officials said. Still, the area was too rugged for helicopters to land nearby.

In an initial report on CNN, a reporter carefully explained the quote he attributed to a Japanese tourist who witnessed the crash. In an unfortunate choice of words the visitor described the fireball as "beautiful."

Anne Skov, who lives near the crash scene, said she watched the plane from her front window.

"It was way too low," she said. "After I saw it, someone called and asked if we were all right and that there was a plane crash. I said, 'Oh, my God - I saw the plane.' "

Some witnesses reported lightning strikes around the time of the plane crash. Lightning raced across the sky some five hours earlier, when the president left Jackson by helicopter.

It is unknown if weather played a role in the crash, Northington said. Lightning was involved in the only Dyess C-130 crash which took more Dyess crew lives than Saturday's crash - the 1982 crash of a Dyess plane in Turkey. Nine crewmen perished in that crash, along with 18 passengers.

The Jackson Hole Airport is located within the Grand Teton National Park, the nation's only airport inside a national park. Dr. Jesse Fletcher, vice president of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee and chancellor of Hardin-Simmons University, said he flew a private plane in and out of the airport several times when he was with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, and that it was "challenging" because of the surrounding, mountainous terrain, small runways, and lack of radio control.

A spokesman for the Secret Service said the agent killed was a "physical securities technician" who was part of the broad presidential protective team.

The Secret Service refers to the C-130 as the "car plane" since it is frequently used to shuttle presidential vehicles. It is usually accompanied by one or two agents. Northington said Dyess crews have routinely carried out such missions without incident for years.

If all had gone according to plan they would have delivered the equipment to JFK Airport in New York, then awaited orders on whether to haul it elsewhere or return to Dyess, he said.

The normal crew for a C-130 is five, however, additional crewmen are added depending on the particular mission. The importance of the presidential cargo probably dictated the larger crew, an officer said.

The last crash at the Jackson Hole Airport was in January 1995 when three people died in the crash of a single-engine airplane on approach to the airport.

The terrain of northwestern Wyoming makes it difficult to find the wreckage of some plane crashes.
A plane that crashed east of the Jackson Hole Airport in 1991, killing three people, was not found until September 1995. And the wreckage of a bomber that crashed in Yellowstone during World War II was forgotten until a 1988 forest fire cleared away dense forest.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

All content copyright 1996, Roy Jones, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine


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