March 23 is the 82nd day of the year. On that day 25 years ago — March 23, 1994 — 24 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division died in the aftermath of a collision of a C-130 cargo plane and an F-16 fighter jet at Pope Air Force Base, now known as Pope Army Airfield.
One hundred other soldiers were badly injured in a fireball that erupted when the jet crashed onto Green Ramp and into a transport aircraft.
Five hundred troops had gathered in preparation for a routine training jump. Units on the day’s manifest were the 82nd Airborne Division’s 504th Infantry, 505th Infantry and 782nd Support Battalion (Main), as well as the XVIII Airborne Corps’ 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and 159th Aviation Group (Combat) (Airborne).
The soldiers at Green Ramp were engaged in a variety of activities in preparation for the jump. Just after 2 p.m., the F-16D Fighting Falcon collided with the C-130 Hercules transport while both tried to land at Pope. The Hercules touched down safely. The F-16 pilots ejected as their plane plummeted to the ground. It crashed and slid across the tarmac into a parked C-141 Starlifter.
Both planes exploded, spewing 55,000 gallons of fuel onto Green Ramp. A massive debris-filled fireball, described by some as 75 feet in diameter, roared through the staging area. Capt. James B. Rich, the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade’s logistics officer and a primary jumpmaster, had just finished rehearsing duties with the jumpmaster team.
Rich said in an April 1994 interview that during the ordeal he felt “fully exposed.” The sensation of the “intense heat of the fireball as it passed over … was like being in a microwave with the temperature getting hotter and hotter.”
He said he “expected to burst into flames.” Actually, the captain’s backside was on fire.
Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry Regiment, who attended the jumpmaster’s review while sitting on the ground, jumped up and scattered in several directions after the explosion. Some of them ran toward the Jumpmaster School training area. Others bolted toward a fence, and still others tried to race behind mock doors of a training device. Some found safety. Most did not. The soldiers who hit the ground and rolled fared better than the troopers who ran. Those who escaped injury went to the aid of the less fortunate, many of whom were on fire.
General officers who later became legendary military leaders were among those in charge that day. Then-Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, the commanding general of XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, praised the quick and impromptu response of the soldiers and rescue teams after the explosion. “When fear sets in, training takes over,” Shelton was quoted as saying in the Fayetteville Observer-Times, Mar 31, 1994.
One month before the accident, the 504th Infantry had to simulate evacuating dead and wounded soldiers during maneuvers at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. “Most of the things ... (at the crash site) were exactly what we had trained for there,” said then-Lt. Col. Stanley A. McChrystal, the battalion commander.
Proud of the heroes of Green Ramp, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. William M. Steele, said in an interview in April of ’94 that “It was soldiers saving soldiers.” Soldiers did “anything they could do to care for their buddies that were more seriously injured.”