When she came up with the idea earlier this week of selling commemorative T-shirts to raise money for the families of Fairchild’s downed tanker crew, Brandy Tiffany thought she’d be lucky to sell 200.
By Friday, the campaign to help a fund set up for the families of “Shell 77,” the call sign of the tanker that exploded and crashed in Kyrgyzstan last week, was nearing 2,000 shirt sales in just three days.
“I was not prepared for it at all,” Tiffany said. “But the tanker community is a tight-knit community.”
A former aircraft life support officer who spent three years off and on in Kyrgyzstan, Tiffany originally designed the shirt for members of that community. Her husband, a Fairchild tanker pilot currently deployed in Qatar, and some of the other crews deployed there and in Kyrgyzstan were interested in finding a way to honor the downed crew.
One sleeve features the names of the Shell 77 crew – Capts. Tyler Voss and Victoria Pinckney and Tech Sgt. Tre Mackey – and the date the KC-135 went down near Chon-Aryk.
The front has the insignia of the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, the designation of the unit flying out of Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The back has a poem, “Vectors to the Tanker,” which talks about the importance of the air refuelers to war and peacetime operations around the world.
The poem was written by “a former tanker guy” who wants to remain anonymous to avoid taking any of the spotlight off the crew, Tiffany said.
The shirts are designed through a Web company, CustomInk, that helps small charities raise money by printing custom shirts and splitting the profits. Friday afternoon, Shell 77 was the No. 1 trending campaign on the website with 1,959 shirts sold; the No. 2 campaign had sold 42.
The more shirts sold, the more money goes to the charity. If they’d hit the original goal of 200 shirts, they’d have gotten about $2,500; if they hit 2,000, as seems likely, they’ll raise $27,000.
“My plan is to just split it three ways and send it to the families,” Tiffany said.
Darryl Blume, a former boom operator at Fairchild, said the campaign’s success shows the power of social media. A discussion of doing something for the families of the crew started on Facebook and gained steam with Tiffany’s shirt design.
The loss of a tanker crew is rare, even in wartime, because the flying gas stations are usually kept away from the hottest combat zones. Fairchild crews regularly rotate through the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, but the base hadn’t lost a crew in either zone before Shell 77 exploded and crashed May 3. The cause is still under investigation.
“Everyone was surprised at how bad it hurt,” Blume said. “But it hit home. We’ve all done that mission.”