On March 23, 1994, 24 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were killed in Pope Air Field Base after an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon and a C-130 Hercules collided in mid-air. The F-16 then hurtled to the ground, crashing into a C-141 that was preparing to carry paratroopers to a jump planned for later that afternoon.
A fireball from the burning jet fuel hit over 500 paratroopers preparing for the airborne operations. Sixteen paratroopers died initially, eight others would later die from the horrible burns suffered, the last of which would pass away nearly a year later. It was the worse single-day loss of life suffered by the 82nd since World War II.
In the early afternoon of March 23, the conditions were perfect for an airborne operation. It was a clear, sunny day with temperatures in the 60s with no wind, a rare, sought-after day in the life of paratroopers who don’t often get those conditions.
Back then, the “Green Ramp” of Pope Air Force Base was quite different from today and had a large personnel shed, a “pax shed” that could hold several hundred paratroopers preparing to jump. It was located on the west side of Pope’s runway. It was an area that all paratroopers knew quite well and was seemingly always in operation.
On that day there were nearly 500 troopers from the 82nd in different stages of preparation for airborne operations. One was scheduled for the afternoon, the other was slated for the evening. Most of the troopers were crowded into a narrow corridor between mock aircraft and a snack bar on one side and several small buildings on the other. That would tragically be the path of the huge fireball that would soon be coming.
The troopers were from the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiments and the 782nd Support Battalion — troops from the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and the 159th Aviation Group were also present.
Back then the Green Ramp area of Pope Base was full of mock aircraft doors, small sheds, buildings, and dirt pits for airborne troops to practice parachute landings. The Air Force parked aircraft there that were waiting to fly out on missions. As always around Pope AFB at the time, the sky was full of C-130s, F-16s, A-10 Thunderbolts.
Shortly after 2:00 p.m., a two-seater F-16 conducting a simulated flameout (SFO) and a C-130 practicing low-level landings collided over runway 23, only 300 feet over the runway. On impact, the F-16 pilot, in an attempt to regain control of his crippled aircraft, applied full afterburners to his engines. But the aircraft began to fall apart around the pilots and they both ejected safely. The C-130 was also badly damaged but the pilots were able to fly away from the scene and then safely landed shortly after the collision.
However, the F-16, still on full afterburner, arced toward Green Ramp, struck the ground between two parked C-130s, and skidded into a C-141 that was preparing for a jump. The only people on board were the crew and the Army jumpmaster. The aircraft ignited the jet’s fuel tanks and created a huge fireball that headed straight towards the area of Pope Base near the pax shed where the 500 paratroopers were located.
Capt. Gerald K. Bebber, the chaplain of the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, told the Fayetteville Observer what happened next.
“I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed… The flame came through 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 hurtling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling “run” from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides, it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps 30 feet beside the edge of the blast and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where… I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight, I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. It was the left one of a pair of C-141s parked there.”
Soldiers scattered as the huge fireball approached their position. While some ran, others sought shelter behind the buildings in the area as flames washed over many of them in a horrifying instant. Wreckage from the F-16, combined with the jet fuel and 20mm ammunition exploding in the fireball created a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
But in the midst of the disaster, the best of American troops came through. Soldiers, NCOs, and officers who were uninjured, and even some who were, rushed to the aid of those who were badly burned or injured by the hurtling wreckage. Medics from the Army’s Delta Force were the first on the scene, rushing to render first aid.
Soon, Pope Air Force Base and Green Ramp were chocked full of emergency vehicles. Injured troops were rushed to Womack Army Hospital, Cape Fear Valley Hospital, Highsmith-Rainey Hospital in Fayetteville, and UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
President Clinton released a statement at the White House in Washington DC following the tragedy.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the tragic collision at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and the resultant loss of life and injuries.
“Hillary and I join all Americans in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of those killed and wish a speedy recovery to those injured.
“This tragedy is a reminder that all those who serve in the military at home and abroad put their lives at risk in the service of their nation, and deserve the thanks of all Americans for doing so,” Clinton said.
The president would visit Pope Air Field Base shortly after the deadly accident.
The Army would award 35 troops the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for risking one’s life in peacetime. The Air Force would later award 11 airmen for their life-saving efforts.
A subsequent investigation would blame the crash on air traffic controllers. However, the Air Force would later say that an error by the F-16 pilot contributed to the crash, but no disciplinary action was taken against him. Pope Air Field Base would later be renamed to Pope Field.