Copper 5, an aircrew never forgotten

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Wes Parrell
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Service Members past and present, families and members of the community joined together to pay their respects during the 35th Annual Copper 5 Memorial, hosted by the Arizona National Guard’s 161st Air Refueling Wing here, Monday.

The tragic loss of the Copper 5 crew has stood as a reminder to the Airmen of the 161st that each day and each mission has real world hazards. Although 35 years ago, for the families and former members of the 161st the loss feels like it was only yesterday.

The morning of Saturday, March 13, 1982, began as a typical early spring day. It was cool with light breezes following the passage of a cold front overnight. Although early morning clouds were scattered across the sky, they were anticipated to burn off as the day progressed.

Across the runway from the main terminal of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, aircrews from the Arizona Air National Guard’s 161st were completing their pre-flight preparations on three Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker aerial refueling jets. Among them was the crew of Copper 5.

The pilot, and aircraft commander, was Lt. Col. James Floor. Floor, who had been named the commander of the 197th Air Refueling Squadron in December 1980, was a distinguished and highly decorated fighter pilot. Having served during the Korean War, flying over 100 fighter missions, he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal seven times. Known for his soft-spoken demeanor, he brought a dedicated professionalism to the wing as a natural leader and pilot.

Maj. Truman Young Jr. was the mission’s co-pilot. Young was a graduate of the Air Force Academy, and like Floor, had a distinguished service history. Having served two tours of duty as a tactical fighter pilot in Southeast Asia during Vietnam, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal 14 times. After earning his Master’s degree and Law degree from Arizona State University, he also served as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.

The crew’s navigator, Lt. Col. Ted Beam, monitored the route of Copper 5’s training mission that day. Also a graduate from Arizona State University, he joined the Arizona Air National Guard after serving a five-year tour on active duty, and was the wing’s director of aircrew training. During his service, he had earned the unit’s prestigious Albert Leo Burns Trophy for significant contributions to the wing’s mission.

The only enlisted service member aboard the flight was Tech. Sgt. Donald Plough. A veteran of the Marine Corps, he joined the Air National Guard as an aircraft mechanic and later became a boom operator. His can-do attitude, dedication and personal magnetism made him a rising star and one of the most liked members of the unit.

The day’s flight was to be relatively uneventful with the three aircraft flying in formation through north central Arizona on a navigation training mission. The 3.5-hour flight route took the aircraft over Prescott, re-directing the crews to Winslow before returning to Luke Air Force Base near the western border of Phoenix Metro Valley where they would conduct practice approaches with the Luke tower. The crews remained in formation until just before entering into Phoenix airspace where aviation traffic was expectedly busy. Configuring with landing gear and flaps, and running their final landing checklists, Copper 5 was authorized for an approach to Luke. Copper 5, entered into the tops of the clouds and descended from its cruising altitude to 2,700 feet.

With Copper 5 inbound, the Luke tower controllers saw a civilian aircraft and issued a traffic advisory, “Copper 5, traffic 5 miles south of the field, light civil maneuvering, altitude unknown.”

The traffic seen on Luke’s flight monitoring systems, which did not show altitude, was a Cessna Cardinal, located about 7 miles from the field. Copper 5 was the clouds and not visible to the approaching aircraft. In the middle of this transmission, Luke tower personnel visually spotted another light civil aircraft skirting the bottom of the cloud deck, also westbound. At the exact moment Copper 5 began emerging from the bottom of the under cast, the second light aircraft spotted by Luke tower began what was described as a steep evasive left turn.

From Copper 5’s roughly 3 o’clock position, the civilian aircraft struck the KC-135 just aft of the door on the right rear fuselage. The civilian aircraft was immediately destroyed in the resulting explosion. The Copper 5 crew, having not seen the other aircraft, had not taken any evasive action.

The KC-135A suffered damage to the right side and upper fuselage, associated flight control cabling, as well as the right horizontal and vertical stabilizers, with the tail eventually separating from the fuselage. Nose down in an uncontrolled descent, The KC-135A crashed into the grounds of the Perryville State Prison and exploded in a post-crash fire, resulting in the loss of the Copper 5 crew.

Retired Col. Mike Kelly was the deputy commander of maintenance on the day of the crash. He was on his day off when he received the call that the Copper 5 crew had gone down.

“I was at home when I received the call that we had just lost four Airmen,” Kelly said. “I was devastated. I went to the Wing and was flown to the crash site with the group commander. I will never forget seeing the wreckage as it smoldered in the open field. The loss of those four Airmen really left a hole in our leadership at the wing, and it took all of us a long time to truly recover from that day.”

Although the unit was greatly affected by the tragedy and loss of the Copper 5 crew, no one felt the loss more than the families of the service members.

Kris Floor was the oldest daughter of Lt. Col. Floor. She was 22 years old and was attending Arizona State University at the time of the crash. She, like many of her family members, have always felt impressed with the 161st and its tradition of honoring this flight crew each year on March 13.

“Even though everyone who was serving at that time has transitioned out of the wing, it is a great feeling that their memory will not be forgotten,” Floor said. “Knowing that this is the 35th anniversary, many more of my family members wanted to make sure they were in attendance at this year’s event.”

Although the investigation of that day’s events showed that the crew of Copper 5 had done nothing wrong and had no contributing factor to the incident, the crews and members of the 161st keeps a constant reminder of safety and training in hopes that they never experience an accident like this again.

Col. Edwin Slocum, vice wing commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, presided over the 35th memorial. After laying a wreath at the Copper 5 Memorial, he expressed why the crew will never be forgotten.

“Today is a tribute to their selfless service,” Slocum 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.”