Survival kits designed to save Air Force crewmen who parachute into water were stored at the Portland Air Base when reservists on a C-130 ditched into the Pacific Ocean last fall, killing 10 of the 11 on board.
But regulations kept the survival kits out of the planes until six weeks after the Nov. 22 crash of the Portland-based plane off the north California coast.
The plane mysteriously lost power in all four engines almost simultaneously and broke up when it slammed into the ocean on Nov. 22, 1996. Without the kits, the reservists had little choice but to ride the doomed plane into the ocean.
The only survivor, Tech Sgt. Robert T. Vogel, said parachuting into the darkness would have left them scattered 80 miles from shore in 53-degree water with inadequate survival gear.
“It would have been suicide for 11 of us to jump out,” he said.
The 20-pound kits contain a raft, an emergency radio, a signal mirror, flares, a whistle and other survival gear.
They are designed to keep airmen alive for days after they bail out over water. An experienced flier can use the kits to inflate the raft and a life preserver in less than 10 seconds, said Col. Edward Wiesner, head of air-crew training at Air Force Reserve headquarters in Georgia.
Active duty C-130 crews were required to carry the kits beginning last September, two months before the crash. Reservists were not required to do so until Jan. 2, 1997, Wiesner said.
The Air Force said only that shared regulations routinely come late to reservists.
Had the kits been on board Nov. 22 they would have given the plane’s commander, Capt. Bob Schott, the option of ordering a bailout, possibly with a better chance for survival.
“Had they been aboard that would have been a viable option for them to use,” said Schott’s widow, Gail Schott. “I think it may have saved some lives.”
Wiesner declined to speculate whether the kits would have improved the airmen’s chances.
But even if there had been kits on board, a bailout wouldn’t have been called for under Air Force procedure, Maj. Joan Strong at the Georgia Air Reserve headquarters said Friday.
Air Force regulations call for the pilot to ditch the plane in the water unless there is land or a ship within sight of the plane, or there’s a “catastrophic condition” aboard the plane, such as a fire, Strong said.
Strong said the fact that one of the airmen was listed as a passenger - meaning he wasn’t part of the crew’s mission and wouldn’t have been issued a parachute - also indicated ditching was the correct move, survival kit or not.