Air Force Association Frank luke chapter

In Memoriam

Never Forgotten

Arizona State University Veteran’s Memorial Wall

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134 Sun Devils are remembered in a respectful, honorable way with the ASU Veterans Memorial Wall located near the Pat Tillman Veterans Center on the Lower Level of the Memorial Union. 


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Copper 5, an aircrew never forgotten

The tragic loss of the Copper 5 crew has stood as a reminder to the Airmen of the 161st that each day and each mission has real world hazards. Although it is over 35 years ago, for the families and former members of the 161st the loss feels like it was only yesterday.

The morning of Saturday, March 13, 1982, began as a typical early spring day. It was cool with light breezes following the passage of a cold front overnight. Although early morning clouds were scattered across the sky, they were anticipated to burn off as the day progressed.

Across the runway from the main terminal of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, aircrews from the Arizona Air National Guard’s 161st were completing their pre-flight preparations on three Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker aerial refueling jets. Among them was the crew of Copper 5.

The pilot, and aircraft commander, was Lt. Col. James Floor. Floor, who had been named the commander of the 197th Air Refueling Squadron in December 1980, was a distinguished and highly decorated fighter pilot. Having served during the Korean War, flying over 100 fighter missions, he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal seven times. Known for his soft-spoken demeanor, he brought a dedicated professionalism to the wing as a natural leader and pilot.

Maj. Truman Young Jr. was the mission’s co-pilot. Young was a graduate of the Air Force Academy, and like Floor, had a distinguished service history. Having served two tours of duty as a tactical fighter pilot in Southeast Asia during Vietnam, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal 14 times. After earning his Master’s degree and Law degree from Arizona State University, he also served as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.

The crew’s navigator, Lt. Col. Ted Beam, monitored the route of Copper 5’s training mission that day. Also a graduate from Arizona State University, he joined the Arizona Air National Guard after serving a five-year tour on active duty, and was the wing’s director of aircrew training. During his service, he had earned the unit’s prestigious Albert Leo Burns Trophy for significant contributions to the wing’s mission.

The only enlisted service member aboard the flight was Tech. Sgt. Donald Plough. A veteran of the Marine Corps, he joined the Air National Guard as an aircraft mechanic and later became a boom operator. His can-do attitude, dedication and personal magnetism made him a rising star and one of the most liked members of the unit.

The day’s flight was to be relatively uneventful with the three aircraft flying in formation through north central Arizona on a navigation training mission. The 3.5-hour flight route took the aircraft over Prescott, re-directing the crews to Winslow before returning to Luke Air Force Base near the western border of Phoenix Metro Valley where they would conduct practice approaches with the Luke tower. The crews remained in formation until just before entering into Phoenix airspace where aviation traffic was expectedly busy. Configuring with landing gear and flaps, and running their final landing checklists, Copper 5 was authorized for an approach to Luke. Copper 5, entered into the tops of the clouds and descended from its cruising altitude to 2,700 feet.

With Copper 5 inbound, the Luke tower controllers saw a civilian aircraft and issued a traffic advisory, “Copper 5, traffic 5 miles south of the field, light civil maneuvering, altitude unknown.”

The traffic seen on Luke’s flight monitoring systems, which did not show altitude, was a Cessna Cardinal, located about 7 miles from the field. Copper 5 was the clouds and not visible to the approaching aircraft. In the middle of this transmission, Luke tower personnel visually spotted another light civil aircraft skirting the bottom of the cloud deck, also westbound. At the exact moment Copper 5 began emerging from the bottom of the under cast, the second light aircraft spotted by Luke tower began what was described as a steep evasive left turn.

From Copper 5’s roughly 3 o’clock position, the civilian aircraft struck the KC-135 just aft of the door on the right rear fuselage. The civilian aircraft was immediately destroyed in the resulting explosion. The Copper 5 crew, having not seen the other aircraft, had not taken any evasive action.

The KC-135A suffered damage to the right side and upper fuselage, associated flight control cabling, as well as the right horizontal and vertical stabilizers, with the tail eventually separating from the fuselage. Nose down in an uncontrolled descent, The KC-135A crashed into the grounds of the Perryville State Prison and exploded in a post-crash fire, resulting in the loss of the Copper 5 crew.

Retired Col. Mike Kelly was the deputy commander of maintenance on the day of the crash. He was on his day off when he received the call that the Copper 5 crew had gone down.

“I was at home when I received the call that we had just lost four Airmen,” Kelly said. “I was devastated. I went to the Wing and was flown to the crash site with the group commander. I will never forget seeing the wreckage as it smoldered in the open field. The loss of those four Airmen really left a hole in our leadership at the wing, and it took all of us a long time to truly recover from that day.”

Although the unit was greatly affected by the tragedy and loss of the Copper 5 crew, no one felt the loss more than the families of the service members.

Kris Floor was the oldest daughter of Lt. Col. Floor. She was 22 years old and was attending Arizona State University at the time of the crash. She, like many of her family members, have always felt impressed with the 161st and its tradition of honoring this flight crew each year on March 13.

“Even though everyone who was serving at that time has transitioned out of the wing, it is a great feeling that their memory will not be forgotten,” Floor said.

Although the investigation of that day’s events showed that the crew of Copper 5 had done nothing wrong and had no contributing factor to the incident, the crews and members of the 161st keeps a constant reminder of safety and training in hopes that they never experience an accident like this again.

Col. Edwin Slocum, vice wing commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, presided over the memorial. After laying a wreath at the Copper 5 Memorial, he expressed why the crew will never be forgotten.


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2nd Lieutenant David Mitchell

Second Lieutenant David Mitchell, was a 62nd Fighter Squadron student pilot who was killed during a training mission March 14, 2008. He was honored at Luke during a memorial service in which family, friends and fellow wingmen after the tragic loss and described him as an aspiring fighter pilot, natural leader and devoted family man. 

"I couldn't be more proud of David," said father Mr. Dave Mitchell, "He was the son I was blessed with and for the man he became." 

Lt. Mitchell was a traditional member of the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing who enlisted in October 2001 and joined the wing's Maintenance Squadron as a jet engine shop mechanic. He earned his commission as a second lieutenant in June 2006 and graduated from undergraduate pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, in August 2007. He arrived at the 56th Fighter Wing in November 2007, to attend the F-16 basic course. 

The hearts and minds of squadron members were still heavy, but were overshadowed by memories of Lt. Mitchell's daily pre-flight banter, jokes at the ops group desk and overall high spirits. 

"As I think back to my early impressions of Dave, what stands out in my mind the most is the excitement he had being here at Luke flying the jets that he previously spent so much time working on," said Capt. Matthew Kenkel, fellow 62nd FS student. 

Lt. Mitchell's engine mechanic background provided a fresh and different perspective for his classmates. "It became quickly apparent how much Dave knew when he would add just a bit more information to engine academics. He had a special appreciation for not only for flying the Viper, but for all the hours of labor, bloody knuckles, sweat, tears and work that went into making his flight hours possible," Capt. Kenkel said. 

Lt. Mitchell earned 237 total flight hours in the T-38 Talon and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. 

According to Lt. Col. Pablo Sanchez, 62nd FS commander, Lt. Mitchell was not a typical lieutenant. "Having worked his way through the ranks of our enlisted force, it was clear that his arrival at Luke followed a long road of commitment and dedication to learn the trade of being an aviator." 

His stepbrother Mr. Justin Hayman emphasized to the Luke members in attendance that Lt. Mitchell lived his dream of flying a multi-role fighter aircraft. 

"David lived and died doing what he loved," Mr. Hayman said. "While most people will never even find the courage to go out and attempt to make their dreams a reality, David made his." 

Thirty-one members of the Ohio National Guard were also present during the service. 

Senior Master Sgt. Mike Berry, 180th Propulsion Element and former supervisor of Lt. Mitchell was proud that the young pilot was selected for the commissioning program and pilot training. 

Lt. Mitchell was considered as the maintenance squadron's golden boy, he said. "I've been doing this for 32 years and the one thing I was really looking forward to doing -- and I didn't let him know this -- was standing and saluting him. I now salute Second Lieutenant Dave Mitchell." 


Troy Gilbert’s Odyssey - After 10-year search, remains of F-16 pilot killed in Iraq are home

  Maj. Troy Gilbert posed for a picture on the ladder of an F-16 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Gilbert was the standardization and evaluation chief for the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and was deployed from the 309th Fighter Squadron out of Luke. Photo Credit: Air Force courtesy of Gilbert family

Maj. Troy Gilbert posed for a picture on the ladder of an F-16 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Gilbert was the standardization and evaluation chief for the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group and was deployed from the 309th Fighter Squadron out of Luke. Photo Credit: Air Force courtesy of Gilbert family

Though he recovered at only 200 feet above ground after the first, successful strafing run, Maj. Troy L. Gilbert kept his eye on the second enemy truck. He returned for a second, even-lower attack despite ground-collision warnings.

Ten years ago, on Nov. 27, 2006, Gilbert saved the lives of US Special Forces troops who were under fire in Iraq, but lost his own life in the process. His F-16 crashed after it passed below a recoverable altitude during the second strafing run.

Despite using a Predator remotely piloted aircraft to try and protect the crash site until US forces could fight their way to it, Gilbert’s body was taken away by enemy fighters.

The Gilbert family’s efforts to bring his body home would take a decade, but on Oct. 3, 2016, the final remains of Troy Gilbert were brought back to the United States and his family.

Gilbert’s widow, Ginger Gilbert Ravella, said she was speechless when Gilbert’s former commander and friend, Gen. Robin Rand, called to tell her Troy’s remains had been found.

“You know, one of the greatest tragedies would have been if Troy was forgotten,” she said, “and to know that he certainly wasn’t [forgotten] at all, I think that’s probably one of the most amazing things.”

Ravella and Gilbert met while students at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He grew up in an Air Force family and was in the ROTC program there.

“I think he just had a different perspective on life that maybe small-town Texas people like me didn’t have,” Ravella said.

They both transferred to Texas Tech, and Gilbert quit ROTC. Shortly after graduating in 1993, however, he realized he missed the Air Force and got into Officer Training School at Maxwell AFB, Ala. A building there is now named after him.

After completing OTS, Gilbert received a personnel slot and became the chief of protocol for the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, UK, in January 1995.

Col. Patrick Ryder, now chief of Air Force media operations, was stationed there at the same time, and the two became friends. Ryder said Gilbert’s selflessness was on display even then. When Ryder was promoted to captain, Gilbert put together a ceremony though they barely knew one another. And after Ryder’s team won an award, Gilbert had signs made and posted around the building.

“He was always just thinking of other folks and always seemed to have time for other people,” Ryder said.

Gilbert also constantly thought about flying and obtained a private pilot license while at Lakenheath.

Just after he and Ravella moved to Colorado so he could serve as a protocol officer for Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Tad J. Oelstrom, Gilbert received word he had been accepted for pilot training. Though Oelstrom offered to change his orders so he could begin right away, Gilbert deferred for a year since he felt he owed his brand-new boss, Ravella said.

Gilbert went on to graduate near the top of the 80th Flying Training Wing’s Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard AFB, Texas, in 2000. He chose to fly the F-16.

“That was the plane he wanted to fly—doing both high and low missions,” Ravella said. “He just wanted that.”
After completing F-16 training at Luke AFB, Ariz., where there is now a memorial bridge named after him, Gilbert was assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano AB, Italy, in May 2001.

That’s where he picked up his call sign, Trojan—a play on his first name.

Gilbert returned to Luke in 2004 as an instructor. Col. Michael V.  LoForti, now a division chief at Air Force Reserve Command headquarters, got to know Gilbert during this Luke assignment.  He said Gilbert managed a lot of students and other instructors as a flight commander but still “took a lot of time with his students, more so than normal, and that really impressed me.”

He also took on the additional duty of being an advance agent for President George W. Bush’s presidential aircraft and an executive officer for Rand who commanded the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke.

Ravella said he was busy, but always left time for family. “I definitely wouldn’t have had five children with someone who wasn’t a great dad,” she said.

In 2006, Gilbert, assigned to the 309th Fighter Squadron at Luke, volunteered to deploy to Iraq with Rand and serve under his command in the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad AB.

He left Sept. 3, 2006, after giving his children—Boston (eight), Greyson (six), Isabella (three), and six-month-old twins Aspen and Annalise—F-16 pins.

“I guess I thought that four-and-a-half months was probably going to be the hardest of our life, and I had no idea, thank goodness, what the future held,” Ravella said.

While in Iraq, Gilbert racked up more than 100 combat hours and also volunteered at the base hospital—sweeping blood off the floor, handing doctors instruments, and sometimes just holding patients’ hands. Ravella said she believes Gilbert’s time as a personnel officer influenced his understanding of the service and made him realize it was built on a cumulative effort.

Ravella said there was “no job too menial,” and she thinks his hospital work shaped his understanding of the sanctity of life and, in turn, his actions on Nov. 27, 2006.

On that day, a ground force came under attack while moving to secure a downed Army helicopter. Gilbert and his wingman were already in the air and were retasked to provide support.

Gilbert’s wingman dropped a GBU-12 on a building enemy fighters were using and then left to refuel. Gilbert and a joint terminal attack controller worked to identify three trucks that had fled the area of the targeted building.

Keenly Focused
Then-Brig. Gen. David L. Goldfein, who headed the crash investigation in 2006 and is now USAF Chief of Staff, noted in his report that communication between the JTAC and Gilbert was “challenging and prolonged” because of the need to save coalition lives while avoiding civilian deaths.

“He didn’t want to harm civilians. He’d seen the devastating effects. He certainly wasn’t going to harm our guys,” Ravella said.

After several minutes, Gilbert located two armed trucks and rolled in for the first strafe with his 20 mm cannon, damaging the lead vehicle.

“While engaged in a dynamic environment with friendly forces under attack, [Gilbert] was at all times keenly focused on the well-being of both coalition ground personnel and Iraqi noncombatants,” Goldfein concluded in the accident investigation report. “Tragically, [Gilbert’s] channelized attention, excessive motivation to succeed, and target fixation caused him to press his attack below a recoverable altitude.”

He and his fellow pilots weren’t surprised at how Gilbert died. “The way he lived is the way he died,” said Col. David G. Shoemaker, now the 56th Fighter Wing vice commander. He had flown with Gilbert at Aviano. He said, “That integrity and excellence showed in his last act.”

Gilbert “fought like a tiger in battle that day,” Rand said in an Air Force press release.

Ravella was home with the children in Phoenix when she heard a knock at the door.

“And I opened it and then I see just a sea of blue Air Force uniforms,” she recalled.

Gilbert’s fate was still unknown, and Ravella held out hope he had ejected and would be found alive. But once investigators were able to inspect Gilbert’s jet, they found skull fragments and concluded he died on impact, after the results of DNA tests came back several days later.

Ravella said the finding at least brought some closure.

“I can’t really imagine anything worse than thinking he was alive and being held by the enemy somewhere,” she said.

Gilbert was the first Viper pilot to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Army major in charge of the ground element wrote Ravella a letter two days after Gilbert’s death to offer his unit’s condolences.

“I feel that it is important you know what Troy did to save us from almost certain disaster on that day,” he wrote. He said he and his men were outnumbered and outgunned and though they had repelled an attack, the enemy was preparing a mortar barrage.

“The pending attack would have been absolutely disastrous for us. With no ability to protect ourselves on the desert floor, we would most certainly have sustained heavy casualties,” he said. “Troy, however, stopped that from happening. His amazing display of bravery and tenacity immediately broke up the enemy formations and caused them to flee in panic.”

“My men and I will never forget the ultimate sacrifice your husband made … and we will always be in his debt,” the letter concludes.

Gilbert was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor device for his actions. A funeral service and burial of the partial remains was held at Arlington National Cemetery in December 2006.

Ravella remarried in 2008—to now-retired USAF Col. Jim Ravella, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who had lost his wife to cancer—but didn’t stop pushing the Air Force for information on Gilbert’s remains.

She did not watch propaganda videos that al Qaeda posted the next year, showing Gilbert’s body—but pointed to them to remind authorities he still wasn’t home.

The trail seemed to grow cold, and she knew that the odds of finding him went way down after US forces pulled out of Iraq in December 2011.

“It just became more than a needle in a haystack, I think at that point, in everybody’s eyes, that his body would ever be recovered,” she said.

But in 2013, Rand, now head of Air Education and Training Command at JBSA-Randolph, Texas, called and asked her to stop by. He told her five small bones from Gilbert’s foot had been turned over to US authorities.

Ravella said the additional small amount of remains brought her peace because “to me, that was a message from the Lord—‘I have him head to toe,’ … and I just wept.”

Seven years to the day after the first burial, the additional remains were interred. Gilbert’s children were now all old enough to take part in this second ceremony.

Just about three years later, on Aug. 28, 2016, an Iraqi tribal leader approached US advisors and said he had information about Gilbert’s remains. Ravella said the tribal leader provided part of a jaw bone as proof.

On Sept. 7, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System at Dover confirmed it was Gilbert’s. The advisors returned to the tribal leader, and the rest of the remains, along with a flight suit, flight jacket, and parachute harness, were turned over.

Ravella said she heard some of the special operators who took part in the mission to recover the final remains were members of the same unit Gilbert saved in 2006.

“I’m just so grateful and am so humbled. I know that it was personal to them,” she said.

US forces in Iraq held a dignified transfer for the remains onto the aircraft, and a 56th Fighter Wing pilot on a six-month deployment to Iraq returned home a week early to escort them.

Testing hadn’t yet confirmed them as Gilbert’s, but Rand told Ravella that officials were confident enough to have the family present for the return at Dover on Oct. 3.

“They knew the value of bringing a brother home and that we would want to be there, and they didn’t want us to miss it,” Ravella said.

Gilbert’s family, Goldfein, Rand, Ryder, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, CMSAF James A. Cody, and base officials were there to receive Gilbert’s remains. “It’s really something powerful to watch,” Ravella said.
DNA tests confirmed the remains were Gilbert’s and the examiner told Ravella all of them have now been repatriated.

“It was just amazing to watch the Air Force put its arms around the family,” Ryder said, describing the dignified transfer ceremony at Dover. “It was just very heartening, and as [an] airman it just made me very proud of the Air Force in that they had not given up on this.”

LoForti, the AFRC division chief, said the return brought closure, “but we already know who he was. … He was already a hero to us.”

From AIR FORCE MAGAZINE - NOVEMBER 2016 BY WILL SKOWRONSKI, SENIOR EDITOR