ROBINS AIR FORCE, Ga --
What happened on September 23, 2022, to an Air Combat Command Squadron crew based at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, is a survival story that brings together the importance of training, bravery, teamwork and cool heads prevailing in a hot situation.
An in-flight emergency- on board an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft - garnered the crew of the 461st Air Control Wing Liberaiders with the Air Combat Command Safety Directorate safety award for the third quarter of fiscal year 2023. The award recognizes individuals, teams, and units for their efforts in mishap prevention.
The 12-member crew was participating in a 5th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron mission. It was four months into their deployment.
On that indelible date, they departed Kadena Air Base, Japan to conduct a nighttime sensitive reconnaissance operation in the East China Sea.
“With clear skies that night over Okinawa and no hazardous weather in the mission area, the takeoff and departure were uneventful,” said Capt. John Lee, the aircraft commander. “Approximately 60 minutes into the mission, our aircraft rendezvoused with a dedicated KC-135 tanker for the night.
“As the crew attempted air refueling, a circuit breaker tripped and the crew discontinued air refueling,” Lee recalled. “At that point, I transferred aircraft control to the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Mitchel Bie, to remain in trail of the tanker while I worked with the flight engineer to diagnose the problem.”
According to Lee, the crew observed that the switches and indicators for the number one engine's bleed air system had all extinguished and found the number one bleed air valve circuit breaker had tripped. The crew attempted to reset the circuit breaker, which immediately tripped again.
“While there is not a specific checklist for this condition, Lt. Bie decided that with no ability to control the number one bleed air valve and no ability to monitor the system for bleed air leaks, overheating, over-pressurization, and firewall shutoff valve position, it would be most prudent to terminate,” explained Lee.
After coordinating with their tanker, JSTARS and the KC-135 aborted the route and began their flights back to Kadena.
Next, the JSTARS team executed the Precautionary Engine Shutdown checklist for the number one engine and once back in Naha's airspace, the crew coordinated to bring the gross weight down to normal landing weight of 247,000 pounds.
While Lee and Bie held the aircraft to adjust gross weight, the Duty Instructor Pilot Capt. Gavin Pease radioed the crew to discuss the situation. Pease concurred with the crew’s actions and would continue to monitor the situation from the ground.
Once at normal landing weight, the crew declared an emergency and began their three-engine ILS approach.
During this phase, crew member noticed a glow illuminating the left side of the aircraft.
Breaking the silence on the headsets came the words, “Pilot, sparks, left side engine!”
According to 1st Lt. Alyssa Schauer, 728th Battle Management Control Squadron, Air Battle Manager/Tactics Team, the Air Weapons Officer, 1st Lt. Brendon Ballew was the first person who noticed the sparks shooting out of the tailpipe of the engine and reported that information directly to the flight deck.
Schauer described Ballew’s actions as brave because traditional course of action usually requires crew members to not speak directly to the pilot or co-pilot during certain critical phases of flight.
“Preparing for landing is a critical time because the pilot and co-pilot are running checklists in order to make sure the landing is smooth as possible,” explained Schauer. “Normal procedures would direct Air Weapons Officers to follow the chain of command and report all issues to the senior director who then would relay information to the Mission Crew Commander. “Then the MCC would go to the pilot, but Lt. Ballew knew the severity of this event and knew that following the chain of command would be too time consuming, so he went directly to the pilot to report the engine issue.”
Schauer was sitting directly behind the pilot, Capt. Lee when Ballew delivered the dire news.
“After he told them, I looked out and saw the sparks coming out of the engine, I was scared.” she recounted. “Some things are truly a blur, but I remember our aircraft commander Capt. Lee and co-pilot, Lt. Bie were so calm. Their demeanors the entire time never changed. I have never been more confident in an AC and co-pilot than I was then because of how they handled the checklist.
“This was an example of muscle memory kicking in and doing what they were trained to do. Our training instructors repeatedly tell us the more you train the more things will become second nature to us and I witnessed this firsthand,” she said.
The aircraft commander, co-pilot and flight engineer scanned the engine instruments, but did not read any abnormal indications on the EPR, N1, N2, EGT, fuel flow, or oil pressure and temperature gauges.
According to the official report, the aircraft commander felt no yaw or changes in thrust, and visually did not see anything outside of the left side of the aircraft. Only being 700 feet from the ground on a stabilized ILS approach and being heavier than the target gross weight for a two-engine on one side go-around, the aircraft commander announced intentions to continue the three-engine approach and land as soon as possible since the remaining engines continued to provide good thrust.
Once Lee brought the throttles to idle and the number two engine low RPM light illuminated. The crew executed an emergency shutdown of the number two engine and continued to taxi back to park after being cleared by the fire chief, without going through the aircraft wash facility due to the emergency.
“We are proud of the crew for exemplifying a culture of safety and Airmanship,” said Col. Adam Shelton, 461st ACW commander. “This crew's exceptional professionalism and airmanship under pressure, accurate and timely decision making, and adherence to the culture of safety amidst an aging fleet were critical to the safe recovery of the crew and aircraft.”
The number two engine was sent to Tinker Air Force Base for investigation and deficiency reporting, where maintenance discovered metal shavings inside the engine. The final investigation discovered an engine blade had separated, causing damage to the turbine section of the engine.
“If that engine had failed at any other point in flight, it would have been a totally different story. We were lucky it happened when it did,” said Lee.
Lee believes quick thinking and experience were the main factors in the crew having a safe landing.
“I was very thankful I had a knowledgeable crew, having everyone be on point and backing each other up,” said Lee. “No doubt our training was important to the success we had in landing the aircraft. We do train for losing two engines. When problems like this happen revert to basic training that kicks in. We knew what had to be done. It was stressful but we were prepared to handle the situation."
After more than 30 years in service, the JSTARS had zero aircraft crashes and suffered no service member fatalities during its service life, according to wing leadership.
“This is a testament to the culture and safety of flight mindset this team flew with,” Shelton said.