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Electrical failure: Offutt pilots describe in

Sep 27, 2023

An RC-135V Rivet Joint, 64-14843, makes a landing at RAF Mildenhall in 2020. The same aircraft suffered a partial electrical failure during aerial refueling over the Caribbean Sea July 13, 2021. Without radios and some instruments, the Offutt-based crew aborted the mission and followed a KC-135 tanker to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.

With some electrical systems out, the Offutt-based crew of BUZZ43 follows an Air Force KC-135 refueling tanker to MacDill AFB, Florida, July 13, 2021. A plane spotter posted the route on Twitter.

Flights just like that have taken place for decades, since the Air Force first fielded the E-4Bs as a National Airborne Operations Center in the mid-1970s. Now, for the first time, those training flights are taking place virtually, in a newly refurbished simulator at a warehouse in La Vista.

The crew of BUZZ43 felt the sudden jolt as their RC-135V reconnaissance jet as the plane slurped fuel from an airborne tanker, visible through the cockpit window just ahead and above them.

Halfway through the delicate ballet of aerial refueling — 25,000 feet above the blue waters of the western Caribbean — the plane's electrical power cut off. The jolt was from the refueling boom automatically disconnecting as BUZZ43 backed away from the tanker.

The pilots — Capt. Joshua Maury and Lt. Will Lewis, from Offutt Air Force Base's 55th Wing — saw red X's on some of their flight displays in place of critical data about their altitude and the performance of the plane's four engines.

"BUZZ43, is everything good?" asked the boom operator on the KC-135 tanker.

The crew couldn't hear. Their radios were dead, too.

The sudden electrical failure quickly turned a routine surveillance mission into an in-flight emergency nearly two years ago, on July 13, 2021. But by keeping calm, and relying on a tested piloting formula called "crew resource management," BUZZ43 followed the tanker to its home base in Florida and smoothly executed a tricky overweight landing without harm to any of the 25 Offutt-based crew members on board.

"The main thing you fall back on is your training," said Maj. Adam "Blue" Sema, 34, the aircraft commander, who was sitting in the jump seat during the emergency, then took the controls to land the plane. "The safety of the crew is paramount."

In-flight mechanical failures aren't uncommon at the 55th Wing, which flies first-generation jets built in the early 1960s. The Wing spends nearly $500 million a year on maintenance for its fleet of 26 RC-, TC-, and WC-135 aircraft.

Sema, who is now an instructor pilot for the Wing's 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, thought the electrical failure — and the crew's response — taught lessons important enough that he told BUZZ43's story in a recent article for the Air Combat Command's quarterly safety magazine, Combat Edge.

"It was a good, unique opportunity for the Air Force to learn from it," Sema said in an interview with The World-Herald.

Suddenly, a Slew of Problems

The day started early for the BUZZ43 crew. They took off in the jet (tail number 64-14843) at 3:01 a.m. from Lincoln Airport, their temporary operating base because of runway reconstruction at Offutt. They headed southeast toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Sema and Lewis would not disclose where the flight was headed. But it had flown through the narrow gap between Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to meet up with a KC-135 refueling tanker from MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, about 3 hours and 15 minutes into the flight. That would allow them to complete their surveillance mission.

Midair refueling is a routine task for military pilots, but a demanding one. They must pull up close behind the tanker and hook a narrow boom trailing behind it into a receptacle above and just behind the cockpit. Then they must remain in that position for several minutes while taking on fuel through the boom. The maneuver requires precise flying skills, and perfect communication between the two crews.

The flight had gone perfectly smoothly, until midway through the aerial refueling.

"The first indication was the disconnect from the tanker," Sema said. "It didn't immediately register that something was wrong."

A Twitter post captures an Offutt-based RC-135 with the callsign BUZZ43 "squawking 7700" — declaring an emergency — after losing partial electrical power during aerial refueling over the Caribbean Sea July 13, 2021.

The missing flight instrument readings hammered home the problem, though, as did the silence on the "hot mic" and the interphone headsets that connected the flight deck crew with the mission crew in the main cabin.

The crew quickly consulted emergency checklists, which directed switching to emergency battery power. That didn't work.

The lack of emergency power told them that BUZZ43 had suffered a partial electrical failure of the DC bus switch, which supplies power to critical systems on the aircraft.

They faced a slew of problems. They didn't have access to critical information for takeoff and landing. They couldn't check the positions of flaps and landing gear.

Although they carried plenty of fuel, much of it was trapped in tanks behind a series of switches and valves that no longer worked. They could neither burn fuel, nor dump it.

The autopilot didn't work. And thunderstorm clouds were building around them.

Lewis took over hand-flying the plane, exercising a skill pilots mostly use only in training.

‘It's Not Happening Today’

Sema, who had served 10 years in the Air Force, hadn't seen an in-flight electrical failure before, except in the simulator. He and Maury worked with other crew members on trouble-shooting.

The navigator, Capt. Joshua Irvin, reset the circuit breaker, which brought back their radios and systems — but only for a few minutes. Then it popped off again.

"The decision had to be made whether to continue or cancel," Sema said. "We (decided), ‘It's not happening today."

In an emergency, he said, the crew is trained to maintain control of the plane, analyze the situation, take action, and land — in that order. They call it "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate."

The crew took stock of what they had left. Because of redundant systems, some of the missing instrument readings were visible to one pilot and could be shared. Three radios in the rear mission compartment still worked, which allowed them to inform Offutt of their predicament.

They decided the best course was to follow the tanker and land at MacDill. Of course, without radios, they had no way to tell the KC-135 crew of their plan.

So the navigator reset the circuit breaker again, knowing it would restore power for a few minutes and give them a brief window to explain their situation.

The tanker crew flashed landing lights and waggled the plane's wings for basic communication. They steered wide of growing tropical thunderstorms during the flight of more than two hours to Tampa.

"They’d telegraph way in advance," said Lewis, who continued to hand-fly the plane. "Occasionally they’d turn right or left, and I’d wonder what they were doing."

One of Sema's biggest problems was keeping his own crew informed, since they couldn't use their interphone. He walked back to the cabin to talk to the translators and radio operators personally, or used runners to carry messages.

‘Ready. . . Go!’

Even as it happened, their flight drew the attention of a corps of hobbyists who follow military flights on air-traffic-control monitoring web sites like and Several watchers took note that BUZZ43's transponder was broadcasting the emergency code "7700" and posted screenshots of its flight to MacDill on social media.

While Lewis flew, Sema and the rest of the flight crew brainstormed how to land a plane they knew would be overweight.

"Having a crew is money," said Lewis, who is now a captain and still a pilot for the 343rd Squadron. "It's really great to have a bunch of other people on the jet who can discuss what the situation is, and how to deal with it."

The plan: Shut down every non-critical electrical system in the back end to reduce the load on the electrical bus. Reset the circuit breaker one more time shortly before landing, and marshal every available crew member to gather critical landing data before the breaker popped off again. Circle offshore with landing gear down to burn off as much fuel as possible.

At the command "Ready. . . Go!" the navigator flipped the circuit breaker.

This time, the power stayed on.

The BUZZ43 crew on final approach to MacDill AFB, Florida, July 13, 2021, following an in-flight emergency during mid-air refueling over the Caribbean Sea.

Sema slid into the pilot's seat to make the landing. He knew it would take more runway than usual because the aircraft weighed 253,000 pounds, at least 30,000 pounds more than normal.

No problem. Sema set the heavy jet down smoothly and rolled to stop at 9:34 a.m. Central time, 6½ hours after taking off from Lincoln.

"He flew it great. He didn't float," Lewis said. "I was like, ‘Wow! We’re safe on the ground.’"

A 50-amp Breaker

The culprit turned out to be a broken electrical relay, connected to one of two 50-amp circuit breakers. When it shorted out, Sema said, the full load went through the remaining relay and its breaker. The second breaker functioned as designed and prevented an overload of the DC bus.

It caused the kind of headache 55th Wing crews had seen before.

On March 14, 2017, and Oct. 29, 2014, two other RC-135 jets experienced similar electrical failures during aerial refueling — both times while on combat support missions out of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Both crews followed tankers safely back to base.

RC-135s are vulnerable to electrical failures because of the large amount of electronic equipment required for their surveillance missions, according to a 2018 World-Herald investigation into flight safety at the 55th Wing.

"The Rivet Joint is full of avionics, heat and people," retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Keck, who commanded the 55th Wing from 1993 to ‘95, said at the time. "It's a more stressful environment."

Sema gained what he called in his article "a healthy respect" for a popped circuit breaker.

"It indicates an overloaded circuit and is a symptom — not the cause — of the issue at hand," he said.

Sema and Lewis credited crew resource management for the safe handling of the emergency. It was a lesson they wanted to share.

"The best way to learn a lesson is from someone else," he said, "so you don't have to go through it yourself."

A TC-135 lands at Offutt Air Force Base Friday following an 18-month runway reconstruction project.

A crowd watches one of the 55th Wing's RC-135s land at Offutt Air Force Base on Friday following an 18-month runway reconstruction. In all, eight RC-135s landed to mark the runway's reopening.

Col. Kristen Thompson speaks at a ceremony celebrating the completion of the runway reconstruction at Offutt. Thompson took over command of the Offutt-based 55th Wing in June 2021 when the project was in progress. Behind her is the air traffic tower.

A RC-135 lands at Offutt Air Force Base Friday following an 18-month runway reconstruction project.

Lt. Col. Ryan Davis brings his new son, Beckett, to see the new runway at Offutt Air Force Base on Friday.

A TC-135 is the first plane to land at Offutt Air Force Base Friday following a complete rebuild of the base's runway. The project took 18 months.

Attendees hold their phones up to get photos of the first plane to land at Offutt Air Force Base, a TC-135, Friday following an 18-month runway reconstruction project.

Rep. Don Bacon, left, and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer were guests of honor at Friday's ceremony. Bacon is a former 55th Wing commander.

Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, speaks Friday about the new Offutt runway. The project cost more than $200 million.

Col. Kristen Thompson, commander of the 55th Wing, speaks at a ceremony celebrating the completion of the runway reconstruction at Offutt. She landed the first jet that touched down Friday.

[email protected]; Liewer

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Steve is the military affairs reporter for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @SteveLiewer. Phone: 402-444-1186.

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Suddenly, a Slew of Problems ‘It's Not Happening Today’ ‘Ready. . . Go!’ A 50-amp Breaker Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube | RSS Feed | Omny Studio | All Of Our Podcasts