Gas Station in the Sky: the Final Flight of Copper 5
On Saturday, March 13, 1982, three KC-135A Stratotankers from the 161st Air Refueling Wing set out on a routine refueling flight from the Air National Guard base at Sky Harbor Airport. They were headed north to Prescott, Winslow, then returning home. North of Phoenix, the formation broke, and two of the planes landed back at Sky Harbor.
The third jet, call sign “Copper 5,” gained altitude to practice instrument approach and touch-and-go landings at Luke Air Force Base in the West Valley. The sky had scattered clouds, with a ceiling between 2,300 and 3,000 feet.
Copper 5 called the tower “…final approach fix inbound, we’re Popeye [in the clouds]” as they made their descent. Moments later, a civilian plane flying at the base of the clouds struck the tanker in the fuselage. The smaller plane exploded and spun as it crashed. The KC-135 split in two and dived nearly straight down, crashing into an empty field that was part of the Perryville Prison.
"The private plane hit the tail part of the big one, and then that little one exploded, and the right wing fell off the big one,'' says Rick Siefken, a corrections officer at the prison.
All four crew members of Copper 5 and the pilot and passenger of the civilian plane were killed. No one on the ground was injured. Debris from the wrecks was scattered over several acres of desert. Airmen from the Arizona Air Guard spent several weeks searching the site and protecting it from curiosity seekers.
Later investigation placed the blame on the civilian pilot for failing to follow Visual Flight Rules (VFR) procedures due to the cloudy conditions and the proximity to the air base.
The deaths of the airmen “…left a hole in our leadership at the wing, and it took all of us a long time to truly recover from that day,” remembered retired Colonel Mike Kelly. As a way to help ease that pain, a memorial was created incorporating the tail fin of a similar KC-135, marked to look like Copper 5. A ceremony is held at the memorial each year on the anniversary of the accident.
This year was the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, and a short, moving service was held for the families of the crew, friends, and members of the Arizona Air Guard. Colonel Edwin Slocum, the vice wing commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, presided. “Today is a tribute to their selfless service,” he said. “Time has passed, but as family members, friends and as a wing, we have not forgotten the ultimate sacrifice that was made that 13th day of March, 35 years ago.”
There were four crewmen on the Copper 5:
· Lt. Colonel James Floor, the pilot, remembered "for his soft-spoken demeanor" and "dedicated professionalism.” He was the commander of the 197th Air Refueling Squadron. A fighter pilot with more than 100 missions during the Korean War, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal seven times.
· Major Truman Young was the co-pilot and had served two tours in Vietnam. He had been awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal 14 times. He was also a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.
· Lt. Colonel Ted Beam was the flight’s navigator and the wing’s director of aircrew training.
· Technical Sergeant Donald Plough was the flight’s only enlisted member. He was a veteran of the Marine Corps, and joined the Air National Guard as an aircraft mechanic and boom operator. He was “one of the most-liked members of the unit.”
At the end of the ceremony, Tech Sergeant Plough's dog tags and a wreath were placed in front of the memorial. Roll was called, and after of the four men’s names were called, there was only silence.