161 ARW aircrew survives aircraft emergency situation - wins AFCENT award

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Michael Matkin
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing
An aircrew from 161st Air Refueling Wing, comprised of a pilot, co-pilot and boom operator, recently won the Air Forces Central Command Outstanding Aircrew award while deployed with the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar for preventing the catastrophic loss of a KC-135R.

During a combat tasking over Afghanistan Sept. 4, as the aircraft entered procedural airspace, the aircrew (Major Dave, 1st Lt. William and Master Sgt. Tony), encountered a dangerous oscillatory instability, which consisted of an out-of-phase combination of "tail-wagging" and rocking from side to side, commonly known as a "Dutch roll". Two minutes later, they experienced a series of severe uncommanded flight control movements. The aircraft quickly exceeded optimal flying conditions, but the aircrew's prompt counter maneuvers prevented a fatal accident.

As the pilot was fighting to control the aircrafts movements, the co-pilot was troubleshooting the malfunction through the use of Air Force technical orders and the boom operator was assessing their trajectory to avoid accidental entry into unapproved airspace. Unfortunately, the aircraft was responding to the pilot's actions with violent, uncommanded, full-scaled deflection of the tail rudder section, which was causing the aircraft to become uncontrollable. Fortunately, the aircrew had been briefed and trained for this exact scenario and they quickly applied the memory committed emergency response.

"My first thought was of Shell 77," said Master Sgt. Tony, 161st Air Refueling Wing boom operator.

On May 3, 2013, "Shell 77", a KC-135R, crashed in the foothills of Chaldovar, Kyrgyz Republic. The crew was departing from the Transit Center at Manas to Afghanistan on a combat aerial refueling mission when they also experienced a "Dutch Roll". The aircraft exploded in flight, costing the lives of Capt. Mark Tyler Voss, Capt. Victoria A. "Tori" Pinckney, and Tech. Sgt. Herman "Tre" Mackey III.

An updated safety checklist was created after the Shell 77 incident to ensure pilots were prepared in case they faced the same scenario.

"We read through the new checklist prior to taking any action so we knew what the immediate corrective action would be to any subsequent problems," said Major Dave, 161 ARW pilot.
"You shouldn't worry about what could go wrong. You really just need to focus on doing it right."

Master Sgt. Tony agreed. "Learn your checklist, go to the simulator and make sure you are paying attention to what you are being taught. If we hadn't, we probably would've had a very different, probably fatal, experience."

After regaining control of the aircraft from this near-catastrophic event, and with a rudder that was still forcing a change in direction, the aircrew realized they would need to make an emergency landing. Coordinating with air traffic control, they immediately reversed direction and reentered combat airspace - calculating the safest diversion to the nearest airfield.

As they descended, they once again encountered uncommanded flight control movements, but they quickly overcame the controllability issues and executed their approach. Landing on centerline, the aircraft suddenly veered approximately 20 degrees off the runway.

"The pilots had to fight to keep the swerving aircraft on the runway," said Master Sgt. Tony. "As soon as the wheel hit the ground we shot right, plus we had the rudder power off. We were moving right and left all the way down the runway until we stopped. This was the third time our lives were in danger due to aircraft malfunctions. I'm just glad we had the pilots we did."

Major Dave said it was the aircrew, as a team, and their problem solving skill that brought them safely through the emergencies.

"The benefit we have as Guardsmen is we know each other, we trust each other and we have a lot of flying experience together as an aircrew, probably more than an active duty crew would've had," said Major Dave.

Due to the aircrew's actions that night, they were awarded the Air Forces Central Command Outstanding Aircrew award, which recognizes aircrew members who averted or minimized the seriousness of an aircraft emergency situation.

An excerpt of the award's citation reads: "In three separate instances, on a night combat mission, the crew's incredibly rapid decision making and truly superior airmanship saved the lives of three crew members and a $39.6 million combat asset."