Down in the desert

  • Published
  • By Darren D. Heusel
  • Tinker Public Affairs
A Tinker Air Force Base employee, who was deployed last year to Iraq as a member of the Oklahoma Army National Guard, unfortunately became all too familiar with a C-130 like the ones he works on here when the aircraft he was flying in suddenly lost power and plunged into the Iraqi desert on June 27 -- a day he will likely not soon forget.

Eddie Simpkins, who works in the blasting facility at Tinker stripping a variety of aircraft including the C-130, volunteered to deploy with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from October 2007 to October 2008 and was on board a C-130 along with 37 other passengers when the plane crashed.

Mr. Simpkins said he and the other passengers boarded the C-130 bound from Balad Air Base to Qatar, where he and the others were looking forward to four days of rest and relaxation.

He said the plane left Balad shortly after noon for what was supposed to be an hour-and-a-half flight. But soon after takeoff, Mr. Simpkins and the other passengers noticed "something out of the ordinary."

Mr. Simpkins, 41, said he and the other passengers were in the air about 10-15 minutes when he heard a clicking sound that "got everybody's attention."

"Of course, we didn't think much of it," he said.

"The lights flickered on and off for a minute, then they went back off."

Mr. Simpkins said the next thing he knew, "we were hitting the ground."

"The crew didn't say brace for impact or anything," he said.

Mr. Simpkins referred to the landing as "very rough, very violent."

"It just shook you from side to side," he said. "There were Kevlars banging into each other, seats breaking..."

Mr. Simpkins said the impact lasted what seemed like an eternity but in reality covered only "about seven or eight seconds."

"Honest to God, the first thing I thought when we hit the ground was, 'We're not in Qatar,'" he said. "I knew we had crashed, but we didn't know what caused it until we got out of the plane." After the crash, Simpkins said he was trying to get out of the plane, "but the door was stuck."

"We had to kick it open," Simpkins said of the door. "We finally got out and I immediately looked to my right...I saw the right wheel well was totally separated from the plane. I looked to my left and saw the front wheel well totally separated from the plane, off in the distance as well."

Simpkins said when the passengers and crew managed to free themselves from the wreckage that came to rest just outside the Green Zone near Abu Ghraib, "you couldn't see the person standing next to you from all the dirt and the dust."

Simpkins said he remembered thinking he couldn't believe what just happened.

"Once we got out of the plane, I kept watching the expressions on people's faces and every one of them were different," he said. "Some were in shock; some grabbed their cameras and started taking pictures."

Simpkins said he remembered this one female Air Force captain in particular. "She was in shock and talking out of her head," he said. "She ended up getting sent home because she never fully recovered from the incident."

Simpkins said while the passengers and crew were waiting around after the crash, two Iraqi police officers showed up in a Jeep.

"I remember them talking to this sergeant major who was on the flight with us and telling him they thought we were all dead when they first rolled up on the scene," he said.

Simpkins said to his knowledge, none of the passengers were seriously injured, although the aircraft sustained quite a bit of structural damage and eventually had to be destroyed.

Officials said the event marked the first time a C-130 had been destroyed by a controlled detonation in combat.

"After the dust settled, I remember hearing someone saying we needed to set up perimeter security," he said. "I remember thinking, 'With what?' We don't have any weapons."

Simpkins said the only weapons at their disposal were two 9 mm pistols belonging to the pilots, one M4 and two M16s belonging to the crew.

"We were all in the prone position when I looked around and saw this captain just squatting down," he said. "I asked her if she was OK. She said 'no,' so I took her hand and started talking to her.

"A few minutes later, we heard some Blackhawks coming. After they landed, the sergeant major told us to get on the helicopter."

Simpkins said the Blackhawks flew the passengers back to Balad, where they received medical treatment and were asked to give their account of what happened. About four or five hours later, he said, several of the passengers got back on another C-130 and flew to Qatar to continue their R&R.

"It was strictly voluntary at that point," he said, referring to those who wanted to continue with their four-day pass. "Not everyone went this time!"

Turns out, Simpkins said the pilots told them all four engines on the C-130 went out at about the same time, forcing the aircraft into the desert.

"I just thought the whole thing was surreal," he said. "I remember thinking, 'Here we are...outside the Green Zone...no weapons...what are we going to do if insurgents show up?'" Since he works on C-130s full-time as a civilian at Tinker, Simpkins said he is constantly reminded of the irony, especially when he flies.

He said he's flown five or six times since the crash and every time he hears a noise "it gets your attention."

"Like those people who crashed into the Hudson River, I can say I lived through it," Simpkins said. "In fact, I was watching that incident unfold on TV...I remember seeing the look in their eyes and thinking, 'I can relate to what they're going through.'"

He said what keeps him going more than anything is his faith.

"It was quite an experience," said Simpkins, who offered he would go back to Iraq in a heartbeat. "I'm a firm believer in that if it's your time to go, it's your time to go. It doesn't matter whether you're in a combat zone or working at Tinker."