There is a very good reason the military utilizes a buddy system, be it in the air, at sea or on the ground.
This became apparent after a Michigan Air National Guard A-10 Thunderbolt II was forced to make a belly landing after a malfunction of the plane’s gun resulted in both the jettison of the aircraft’s canopy and malfunctioning landing gear.
107th Fighter Squadron pilot Captain Brett DeVries was conducting a gun run over the Grayling Air Gunnery range last month when his GAU-8 suffered a malfunction, expelling explosive gasses that blew out panels, jettisoned his canopy and damaged his landing gear.
“It was like someone sucker punched me,” he said. “I was just dazed for a moment.”
Acting on instinct, the pilot pulled hard on the stick at around 150 feet off the ground, climbing to 2,000 feet until he could regain his bearings. Sitting as low as he could to avoid being shuddered to death by the wind, he did his best to ascertain the situation.
“There was paper everywhere. And I was afraid to open up my emergency checklist, because I knew that would just blow away and maybe get sucked in to an engine,” DeVries recalled.
His wingman, Major Shannon Vickers, did not see the explosion but took note of DeVries’ quick ascension. Flying under his wingman the Major -who was an enlisted weapons specialist for the A-10 prior to becoming an officer- carefully determined whether or not the crippled ‘Hog could land or not.
“I didn’t want him to feel like he would be in a position where he told me to do something and it didn’t work. I wanted his full, honest input,” DeVries said.
As they headed towards an airstrip, they argued back and forth over whether or not landing with the gear down would even be an option. On the way to their emergency destination, the pilots conferred with several A-10 technicians, communicating with the pilots via a patchwork of communications systems that started in a cockpit and ended on a speaker phone.
“I just thought, ‘There is no way this is happening right now.’ It all was sort of surreal, but at the same time, we were 100 percent focused on the task ahead of us,” Vickers said.
As the two came on final approach, they were confident that the aircraft -and their skills- would bring them down alive.
“As he made final approach, I felt confident he was making the right decision,” Vickers said. “We had talked through every possibility and now he was going to land it.”
Where other aircraft would have exploded on the runway, the sturdy A-10 took the brunt of the belly landing, allowing Devries to make a textbook wheels-up landing that resulted in him walking away from unharmed.
“I flew him down, calling out his altitude,” Vickers said. “He came in flat, I mean it was a very smooth landing.”
His buddy safely on the ground, Vickers returned to his home base.
“Capt. DeVries skills as a pilot were put to the test in this incident,” said Brig. Gen. John D. Slocum, the 127th Wing commander. “He demonstrated not only superior skill as a pilot but remained calm in an extremely challenging situation. To walk away from this scenario with no injuries is a true testament to his abilities as a world-class fighter pilot.”
For the two pilots, it put a whole new level of meaning to the “buddy” system.
“There is a reason why we train as a two-ship or greater,” said Col. Shawn Holtz, Commander of the 127th Operations Group and an A-10 pilot. “We rely on each other and need to have mutual support within the flight. Maj. Vickers was the definition of what a Wingman should be in this flight. He stuck with Capt. Devries and did everything in his power to see this through to a safe landing. Both of these pilots demonstrated not only superior flying skills, but represent the type of teamwork and professionalism that should be the goal of every Attack Pilot.”
According to the 127th Wing, the aircraft is still being repaired.
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