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THE NATION | RESPONSE TO TERROR

Lack of Goggles Cited in Crash

June 20, 2002|TONY PERRY and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — The crash of a Marine Corps plane into a mountainside in Pakistan that killed seven Marines was caused by flight crew error, but might have been prevented if the plane had been equipped with night-vision equipment, a Marine investigation concluded Wednesday.

The KC-130 Hercules transport and refueling aircraft crashed Jan. 9 while attempting a night landing at Shamsi, Pakistan, when the air crew "lost awareness of their position" and did not realize the plane was too low to clear a mountain range that rings the military airfield there, according to the report.

The crash remains the deadliest accident during the U.S. war on terrorism.

The plane, flown by Marines from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, did not have the night-vision equipment the Marine Corps has since ordered installed in many of its KC-130 planes.

The equipment might have allowed the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and flight engineer to realize the plane was headed toward the mountain while banking left on its approach to the airfield, officials said.

"It may have helped," said Col. Randolph Alles, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 11. "We just don't know."

In Redding, the mother of the pilot, Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft, said the report adds to the family's grief but does not diminish their pride in his military service.

"We've been preparing for this, but it still hurts," Beverly Bancroft said. "You think you're just starting to heal, then it starts all over again. The people who knew Matthew and flew with him knew what a good pilot he was.

"Whatever the circumstances, they all died in the service of their country," she said.

At the time of the crash, the Marine Corps had night-vision equipment on nine of its KC-130s, eight of which are part of reserve squadrons in New York and Texas. The planes sent to support combat operations in Afghanistan did not have the equipment.

But Alles and other officers noted that other KC-130s previously had landed at the same airfield at night without problems.

The crew was experienced and rested and had flown before into Shamsi, near the Afghanistan border.

The night was moonless but clear.

Although asserting there is no connection to the crash, the Marine Corps this year began training crew members in the use of night-vision goggles and retrofitting KC-130 planes so that their display terminals can accommodate the goggles. The retrofit requires that cockpit display lights be modified, so they do not appear blurred to crew members wearing goggles.

The KC-130s have been packhorses to support the Marine Corps thrust into Afghanistan, ferrying fuel, supplies and troops to Camp Rhino--a former Taliban facility seized by the Marines--and to the war-torn airfield at Kandahar.

"There was obviously a mistake made there in a high-demand environment," Alles said. "It happens in aviation."

According to the report, Bancroft asked for permission to land at the main runway at Shamsi. But because of noise concerns from a neighboring Pakistani village, a Marine Corps air traffic controller told Bancroft instead to use a second runway with a different approach.

Alles said guidelines call for planes operating in such conditions to climb to 7,000 feet, then maneuver for a long, straight approach.

Instead, Bancroft banked left and tried for what pilots call a "short" landing.

The plane struck the mountain at an altitude of 3,800 feet--200 feet short of the altitude needed to clear the ridge.

Officials speculated that the crew may have been cutting corners because they were behind schedule and had two other stops.

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