A Moment in Air Force History: CT-43A crash

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office

Recently, the 76th Airlift Squadron held a memorial in honor of one of the saddest events in the squadron’s history. On April 3, 1996 a CT-43A (73-1149), a military version of a Boeing 737, crashed into a mountainside while attempting a landing at Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Most remember this crash because of the death of U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ronald H. Brown. The U.S. Department of Commerce had contracted the 76th AS to transport Secretary Brown and his 26-member team of government and private industry representatives.

They were flying to various meetings in the former Yugoslavia in an effort to strengthen peace in the region through establishing more economic cooperation.

The last flight of the CT-43A was from Tuzla Air Base, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Weather conditions were just at minimums for their difficult approach. The aircraft crashed at 2:47 p.m. local time into St John’s Hill (Strazisee). Multinational search and rescue teams from Operation Joint Endeavor were dispatched, but poor weather, lack of coordinates and the aircraft’s line-of-sight emergency locator beacon hindered their efforts. The sole survivor of the crash died of her injuries en route to a local hospital.

Three days later the Americans were honored in a brief ceremony at the Dubrovnik Airport. The Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, and the bishop of Dubrovnik attended. From there, they were transported in a C-17 to Dover Air Force Base, where they were honored in a full ceremony attended by President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, cabinet members, government officials, military officers and the families of the victims.

This tragedy was particularly hard felt on Ramstein. In addition to the loss of the 27-member economic team and the two Croatian passengers, the 86th Airlift Wing lost six of its crewmembers: Capt. Ashley “AJ” Davis, aircraft commander; Capt. Timothy Shafer, co-pilot; flight attendants Tech. Sgt. Cheryl Turnage, Tech. Sgt. Shelly Kelly and Staff Sgt. Robert Farrington, Jr.; and Staff Sgt. Gerald Aldrich, flight mechanic.

Photos of the six with unit scarves and cased flags were displayed at Ramstein’s memorial service. More than 900 people packed the Northside Chapel, the chapel annex and the movie theater to pay their final respects. The service ended with a 21-gun salute, Taps and an F-16 missing-man flyby. (Ramstein had already switched from F-16s to airlift in 1994.) Ramstein’s flags were flown at half-staff April 5 to 9. An education fund was even established for the Ramstein victims’ children.

The Air Force accident investigation board report on the crash showed that there was no single cause of the crash, but concluded that several mistakes occurred simultaneously. These mistakes were compounded by the practice at the time of using questionable Soviet-era instrument approaches.

It was a sad day in Ramstein’s history, but as President Clinton said at the memorial service, “They believed in what they were doing. They believed in their country and they believed they could make a difference.” They made a difference! May we never forget their sacrifice.