On the 23rd of March 1994, the usual peace at Pope Air Force Base was shattered by a mid air collision between an F-16 and a C-130 on their final approach to the runway. The collision sent the F-16 careening into a paratrooper training area on the base, engulfing those inside in flames.
The scene was a frenzy of fire, smoke, burning paratroopers, and ammunition from the F-16 cooking off. Those who could helped extinguish the flames off their fellow troopers, often only to immediately catch fire themselves as they too were drenched in fuel.
When the flames dissipated they left behind debris, wreckage, burning trees, destroyed buildings, and the screams of people burning.
This is the story of the Green Ramp Disaster, the biggest loss of life by the 82nd Airborne since the Second World War.
A Normal Day
Pope Air Force Base, now Pope Field, is an airbase in North Carolina, USA that was established in the late 1910s. It has supported a wide variety of squadrons and aircraft over the course of its history, but it has primarily been used by US airlift squadrons, operating aircraft like the C-130 and C-17.
The airbase is also home to the XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, of D-Day fame.
At the end of Pope Field’s east-west runway is the “Green Ramp”, a section of concrete used as a parking ramp and staging area by the Air Force and Army. Along its borders is the jumpmaster school training area, comprised of buildings and grassy areas.
The area serves as a staging point for paratroopers before missions, and contained a number of cargo aircraft doorway mock-ups that the paratroopers could use to simulate jumping from different types of aircraft.
Two parachute jump missions were scheduled to take place at Pope Field on March 23, 1994; one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. Around 500 paratroopers from the 504th Infantry Regiment, First Brigade, and 505th Infantry Regiment filled the area around the Green Ramp in preparation for the drops.
They were to jump from two C-141 Starlifters, which were parked up about 75 meters away on the Green Ramp.
As the troops practised leaving the doorways, grabbed snacks from the nearby snack bar, or sat on the grass listening to briefings, a two-seater F-16D from the 74th Fighter Squadron was conducting a training mission nearby.
At 14:10, the F-16 came in to perform a simulated flame-out engine approach, just as a C-130 Hercules was on a real final approach to land. At around 90 feet, the F-16’s nose clipped the tail of the C-130, severely damaging both aircraft.
Recognising their aircraft was damaged in some way, the C-130 diverted away from the airfield and began assessing whether they could safely land.
The F-16 was in much greater trouble. The pilot slammed the throttles and ignited full afterburners in an attempt to gain control over the aircraft, but when it began come apart mid-air, its two-person crew ejected.
While this fortunately saved them, the F-16 carried on with its afterburners still engaged towards the Green Ramp. It slammed into the concrete and skidded across the ramp, smashing into one of the paratroopers’ C-141s and ripping off its right wing.
55,000 gallons of fuel was unleased into the mess and ignited as the F-16 careened by, sending a huge fireball billowing into the sky.
This was the first moment for many at Pope Field that something had gone very wrong.
Before anyone could properly react, the F-16’s wreckage, debris, burning fuel and a massive fireball ripped through the paratrooper’s staging area.
Some paratroopers managed to duck behind cover or roll on the ground to avoid the blast, but many simply couldn’t react in time and were engulfed in the flames.
Captain. Gerald K. Bebber, the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain, recalled the event: “The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame, I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along.“
“The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward.“
Jumpmaster Captain Rich managed to find cover behind a 12-inch-tall slap of concrete as the flames blast past him. He said the “intense heat of the fireball as it passed over… was like being in a microwave with the temperature getting hotter and hotter…. It also had that weird low-pitched roaring sound like that of a blow torch…. At any instant I expected to burst into flames.“
There were few options for those caught in the fireball, it was either drop to the floor or try to outrun it. Those who ran fared worse.
As the main fireball receded, survivors were presented with a devastating scene; people on fire, trees and buildings burning, bodies, flames and pieces of aircraft scatted on the floor. At the same time, 20 mm ammunition from inside the F-16 started popping off, sending projectiles flying.
Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry managed to survive the blast by rolling. “Ammunition was going off. I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.” he said of the disaster.
Those who were less injured quickly began tending to the wounded. Fortunately many had medical equipment with them as they were prepared to jump in full gear – this was quickly put to work and helped to save lives in the first vital minutes.
However in some cases this simply made matters worse, as troops unaware that they were soaked in fuel immediately went up in flames themselves when they went to help a burning friend.
When Chaplain Bebber was free of the blast, he made his way to the location of his unit and found two victims on fire, one of which had a mostly-severed leg. He tried to smother the flames with his own clothes but they too ignited, having been covered in fuel. He resorted to chucking dirt from a nearby path on top the man, making an effort to avoid his leg.
Even in the split second that the debris and explosion passed through, there were many heroic actions.
S. Sgt. Daniel E. Price from the 2nd Battalion sacrificed his life for Spc. Estella Wingfield, whom he had never met before. She said that as the blast came “He looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the shirt, threw me several feet in the air and jumped on top of me…. An instant later I heard the blast, felt the extreme heat from the explosion and the debris falling on us…. After the explosion and the rounds stopped going off, he whispered in my ear, “Crawl out from underneath me.” I did and took off running.“
Wingfield assumed Price followed her path, but when she turned around she saw he was still in the same spot. Returning to him, she realised Price was dead.
Combat medic Sgt. Waddington Sanchez was one of the first to see the blast coming. He jumped up and screamed for everyone to get to cover. This very act gave many enough warning to survive, but it came at the cost of his own life when the fireball hit.
This is just a small slice of the horror that occurred just behind the Green Ramp that day.
Much of the base had descended onto the scene to help the many who were still on fire or injured. But the teams moved quickly; Pope Field firefighters were on the scene within 2 minutes, and their civilian counterparts arrived within 15.
45 minutes after the incident, all those of those who were injured had been moved to the main hospital in Womack.
The two F-16 pilots were collected by an ambulance that happened to be passing by and survived the event. The C-130 that they had collided into landed on the debris-covered runway as those on the ground were dealing with the fire.
In total 24 people were killed by the crash of the F-16, with one victim dying some nine months later due to severe injuries.
In the coming days after the crash, President Bill Clinton visited victims at Fort Bragg and thanked them for their service.
The Air Force conducted an investigation into the incident and found that the blame was not on one single mistake, but a combination of errors.
These mostly related to the military and civilian air traffic controllers, but the F-16 pilots also received some of the blame. While they stated they didn’t see the C-130, they did mishandle some protocols. The F-16’s pilots were transferred to other duties.
While the incident had been a disaster, the response had been a complete success. Previously established partnerships between military and civilian emergency services meant that civilian medical and firefighting teams were able to respond in rapid time.
And without any direction, those involved instantly got to work however they could, and saved many lives in the process. The local services have used the event to sharpen their responses, and have now factored a major air crash in their training.
The tragedy represents the largest number of deaths on the ground resulting from an accidental aircraft crash in the US, and is the largest loss of life suffered by the 82nd Airborne since the Second World War.