1996 Crash of C-130H Jackson Hole, Wyoming

1996 crash of C-130H Jackson Hole, Wyoming

“At 2250 local time Aug. 17, 1996, a U.S. Air Force (Lockheed) C-130H struck a mountain ridge during departure from Jackson Hole Airport in Jackson, Wyoming, U.S. The aircraft was destroyed, and the eight crew members and a passenger were killed.” So begins the report of the Flight safety Foundation of August, 2000. The Mountain ridge they struck was Sheep Mountain, also called Sleeping Indian Mountain.

The Sleeping Indian

The C-130H (call sign HAVOC 58) had arrived at the Jackson Hole airport that morning. It’s mission was to pick up a U.S. Secret Service communications vehicle (earlier brought out for the Clinton vacation) and haul it back to JFK airport in New York.  This vehicle weighed 10,000 pounds but that’s a light load for the C-130H which has a maximum payload of 42,673 pounds. It’s 8 crew members and a passenger (who was a female Secret Service officer) may have added another 1200-1500 pounds, still only 25% of the C-130’s maximum payload. Even fully loaded the C-130’s maximum rate of climb at sea level is 1,900 feet per minute. Service ceiling is 33,000 feet. Maximum cruising speed 325 knots. Stall speed is 100 knots.

Altitude affects climb performance of an aircraft, so at roughly 6,200 feet the Jackson Hole Airport would reduce climb performance somewhat because the air is thinner requiring more thrust. However, the relatively light load and the very powerful turbo-prop engines would have easily made up for the effect of altitude in this case.

The C-130H has four Allison T56-A-15 engines each capable of producing 4,508 equivalent horsepower each driving a four-blade Hamilton Standard propeller. Take-off speed, climb rate and load weight were not a factor in the crash this aircraft.

The cause of the crash given by the Flight Safety Foundation report, which must have been the same cause given by the official NTSB and U.S. Air Force report, was crew error and non-compliance with departure procedures.

The crew had little familiarity with flying the C130 in mountainous terrain. They were also either misinformed or mistaken in their perception of the unique terrain surrounding Jackson Hole Airport. It was a moonless ink-black night. No visual of the surrounding mountains would have been available to the crew through the cockpit windows.

It gets worse. The crew was not simply unaware of the terrain, they were mistaken in what they believed the terrain to be. They knew that noise abatement procedures at Jackson Hole required them to make an immediate left 45-degree turn to avoid the houses off the end of the runway (one of which is mine! UPDATE: No longer, we sold it and left Jackson last year). They may not  have known that most pilots out of Jackson Hole do not maintain the left turn any longer than it takes to clear those homes.

It gets worse yet. They believed the terrain out of Jackson Hole Airport was about 7,300 feet 10 miles from the airport. Actually, that is the terrain only 5 miles from the airport. At 10 miles from the airport the terrain rises to over 11,000 feet. The crash site was about 9 miles from the airport. Sheep Mountain, just slightly South of crash site is 11,277 feet. The C-130H struck the mountain ridge at 10,392 feet, 500 feet below the ridge. Thirty (30) more seconds of climb might have saved them (I don’t know if they were still climbing at that point, but they should have been).

There was no panic or fright in the cockpit because they had no idea they were in trouble until they hit the mountain ridge. They never knew what hit them. The last transmission on the Flight Deck Recorder was from the navigator at 2250:25 hours when he said, “My altimeter just died.” The plane struck the mountain 2 seconds later, at 2250:27.

I’ve hiked up to the top of sleeping Indian a few times, and hiked across the crash site. The first photo below shows the crash site today (all cleaned up) and the next photo shows the way up Sleeping Indian from there.


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