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NEWS | Feb. 28, 2022

Kentucky Air Guardsman recalls Evansville crash 30 years later

By Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Steve Bullard remembers the morning of Feb. 6, 1992 with perfect clarity.

That day, the former Kentucky Air National Guard navigator was pulled off a fatal C-130B Hercules training flight just minutes before takeoff.

Within an hour, the transport aircraft would lose airspeed and bank sharply as its crew practiced low approaches at Evansville Regional Airport in Evansville, Indiana, crashing into a Drury Inn and JoJo’s Restaurant. The devastating impact killed all five crew members and 11 people on the ground. Flaming wreckage was scattered everywhere.

It’s something Bullard still tries to make sense of today, 30 years later.

“I think about it a lot,” said Bullard, who retired in 2017 as a brigadier general and chief of staff at Headquarters, Kentucky Air National Guard. “Could things have ended differently if I had been on that aircraft that day? Could I have done something that changed the course of events? I don’t think so, because we had two co-pilots on board. But the answer is, I don’t know.”

In 1992, Bullard was a young captain in the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Tactical Airlift Wing. On the morning of Feb. 6, he was scheduled to fly as a navigator on the ill-fated training flight. As the crew was stepping out the door to board the aircraft, however, Bullard was called back to the Operations Building and asked if he could stay behind and plan for a different flying mission later in the day.

“I said, ‘Yes, I can absolutely do that,’” Bullard recalled. “I had no idea it was going to save my life.”

As the C-130 took off from the Kentucky Air Guard Base in Louisville, Bullard began working up a flight plan for the mission he was now scheduled to fly that afternoon. While he was putting the finishing touches on that, a coworker walked in the flight planning room and said, almost in a trance-like state, “Dude, your crew is dead.”

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he went and turned on this big radio we had in there. It was WHAS, and they were reporting on the crash of a C-130 in Evansville.”

Bullard explained that a local TV news crew had been in the area, reporting on an unrelated event, when the plane went down. As a result, footage began appearing on CNN within five minutes of the crash — faster than notification could happen through official channels.

“We’re literally finding out about it at the same time as everyone else,” Bullard recalled. “Obviously, we were both stunned. And I kind of sat there for a few minutes in shock. It took me a while to get my wits about me, and I realized I needed to call my wife because she thought I was flying that morning.

“The biggest thing I remember from that day, besides the initial shock, was that people started coming in to the base from everywhere — traditional Guardsmen, family members. People just flooded in to be with us and to show support. Wing leadership also began putting together teams of people to go out and be with the family members of the crew who were on the flight. The coming together of people as a community was very striking.”

In addition to the 11 victims on the ground, the accident took lives of Maj. Richard Strang, a veteran command pilot; co-pilot, Capt. Warren Klingaman; co-pilot, 1st Lt. Vincent Yancar; flight engineer, Master Sgt. William Hawkins; and loadmaster, Master Sgt. John Medley.

“It was an outstanding crew,” Bullard said. “The pilot was just an incredibly good aviator. Warren Klingaman had spectacular potential and a very bright future. Bill Hawkins and John Medley were the best of the best. We were really just getting to know ‘Rin’ Yancar, but I think he had a very bright future too. You really couldn't have had a better crew.”

In the aftermath of what Bullard described as the darkest day in the history of the Kentucky Air Guard, he was sent to Evansville to serve as a public affairs representative, helping coordinate news coverage and answer the questions of civilian reporters. He was joined there by a team of Kentucky Air Guardsmen that included security forces, life support personnel and the Chaplain’s Office.

“This was a massive traumatic event for the Kentucky Air National Guard, but it was also a massive traumatic event for the city of Evansville,” he said. “They lost 11 people who were killed in the crash and had significant damage to the hotel complex. So it was our job to make sure they understood as much as possible about the subsequent investigations.”

Although the Air Force does not release detailed findings of crash investigations for reasons of national security, Bullard said the team was able to reconstruct the sequence of events that lead to the mishap. That information was then shared with the global Air Force flying community to prevent it from ever happening again.

“Those findings absolutely contributed to the increased safety of C-130 operations worldwide,” he said.

Flying aircraft is not a risk-free undertaking, Bullard noted. But he said the 123rd Airlift Wing has deeply rooted commitment to flight safety, as do flying units across the Air Force. Part of that culture is underpinned by learning from past experience, and growing.

“I still have a lot of sadness when I think about that day,” Bullard said. “I’m getting emotional right now. But in a strange way, it made us a better unit. The tragedy made us bond together more tightly than ever before. And soon afterward, we completed our conversion to the C-130H aircraft, which opened a whole new world of global missions for the wing.”

Almost immediately, the unit deployed for humanitarian operations in Somalia and Bosnia, followed by continued global engagement in dozens of countries and on every continent, both before and after 9/11.

“The Evansville crash was a horrible thing, but we grew from that and it made us who we are today,” Bullard said. “I would so much rather that it never have happened and that we grew another way. But we did grow out of it, and that helped create what's become an unbelievable culture of service. The 123rd Airlift Wing today is one of the most decorated airlift units in the United Sates Air Force. There's a reason for that.”

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