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Westover contributes to crash investigation

This C-5 Galaxy lies in a field on the south side of Dover Air Force Base, Del., after it crashed Monday, April 3, 2006.  Specialists roped off the area with caution tape to preserve the  scene until a safety investigation board completes its task.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Doug Curran

Air Force C-5B number 84059 lies broken in a field on the south side of Dover AFB, Del., after it crashed in April. Four Westover personnel were chosen to cross the caution tape to inspect the scene as part of Air Mobility Command’s safety investigation board. (U.S. Air Force photo/Doug Curran)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- When Air Force officials began assembling a team of investigators to sift through the wreckage of the C-5 that crashed April 3 at Dover Air Force Base, Del., they looked to Westover for help. 

Four Patriot Wing members were hand-picked to serve on Air Mobility Command’s safety investigation board, the largest contingent from any base. 

Lt. Col. Patrick L. Cloutier, wing safety officer, Capt. Joseph M. Zackaricz, maintenance supervisor at the 439th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Master Sgt. Ronald E. May, quality assurance office supervisor for the maintenance group, and Joseph R. Strouse, a retired chief master sergeant who works for Air Force engineering and technical service, took part in the high-profile, high-tempo investigation. 

“It was like sitting on the bench at a little league game and getting called up to the majors,” said Captain Zackaricz. “As soon as we got there, we had to clean fuel off the aircraft, off-load cargo, remove flares and squibs, stabilize the fuselage and remove the engines, determine what was salvageable and analyze the fuel.” 

Walking among the wreckage was sometimes heart-wrenching for maintainers who spend their days caring for the giant planes. 

“Seeing the airplane in the dirt for the first time, it was difficult,” said Sergeant May. “I’m used to seeing these airplanes parked on a hard surface or flying ... walking up to an airplane in pieces was quite emotional.” 

The daunting job of finding every one of those pieces fell to Captain Zackaricz and his team. They spent most of April mapping the vast debris field, which stretched more than a quarter mile across the old farm field that abuts Dover’s runway 32. 

Once the crash-site work was done, the team began a rigorous inspection of the maintainers who serviced the fallen C-5. Their tools, maintenance records, work schedules, health records—even workday weather conditions were scoured in an effort to uncover anything that could be tied to the accident. 

“They busted their butts,” said Colonel Cloutier, the board’s investigating officer. “Our maintainers had a ton of work to do. They did a tremendous amount of records review—more than any other group in the investigation. Their work was critical to determining whether the new avionics played a role in the mishap. 

“In typical Westover fashion, they were outstanding. They deserve every accolade we can get them,” the colonel said. 

Ultimately, the safety investigation board cited human error as the cause of the crash, noting that “ ... the pilots and flight engineers did not properly configure, maneuver and power the aircraft during approach and landing.” 

Although tragic, the mishap has already provided valuable training for Westover maintainers. 

“Since I got back, I’ve been briefing our guys that the actions the crew took—the whole sequence of the accident—were in reaction to a warning light,” said Captain Zackaricz. 

According to the investigation report, the aircrew observed a “Thrust Reverser Not Locked” warning light for the No. 2 engine after a routine takeoff and initial climb. The string of miscalculations that followed resulted in the crash. 

“Our folks deal directly with the components that make those lights go on and off,” said the captain. 

In addition to lessons learned, the personal and professional importance of the mission also resonated with the team. 

“It’s rewarding knowing we had an impact on how the Air Force does things,” Captain Zackaricz said. 

“I was honored,” said Sergeant May. “It’s something people don’t get to do very often in their careers.”