Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A-10 community guides civilian pilot to safe landing

Maj. Steve Nester, 303rd Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, led a civilian pilot to a safe landing March 11, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. after the pilot told control towers he was low on fuel and unable to make a landing due to the weather. The 303rd FS is part of the 442nd Fighter Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Tom Talbert) Hi-res

Note: The aircraft is A-10C 79-0114 "Thunderbolt of Kansas City".

by Senior Airman Danielle Wolf
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

3/16/2010 - WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Thursday began as a typical day for Maj. Steve Nester, 303rd Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot.

He suited up and boarded his aircraft, doing all the typical checks and preparing for flight. When his wingman had to make a last-minute abort, he didn't think much of it.

It wasn't until he was headed from Whiteman AFB to Springfield, Mo., for a routine training mission, that he realized it wasn't going to be a normal flight.

"On my way to Springfield, I called Maj. (Dax) Hayes and Maj. (Todd) Riddle to let them know what the weather was like there," Major Nester said. "They were about a half-hour behind me, and that's when Major Riddle told me there was a civilian pilot in trouble who they were talking to on their frequency."

Major Nester switched to that frequency on his radio in time to hear Major Hayes talking to the civilian pilot. There, he found out that the pilot was flying a Mooney airplane, a single-engine, general aviation aircraft. The man was not an instrument-rated pilot, meaning he was not qualified to be flying above the clouds and he only had about an hour's worth of fuel left.

"When I started talking to him, he was pretty worried," Major Hayes said. "He had been on the radio with the controllers at Whiteman. I asked them what they were doing for him, and they said they were trying to find him good weather to land in, but they said it was going to be hard because there wasn't really good weather anywhere."

It was at that point that Major Hayes asked the pilot about his situation.

"He said he only had about one hour of instrument flight time," Major Hayes said. "I'm not sure how he got that high in the first place, but it is possible that he was flying and then the clouds moved in below him."

The major began asking the pilot about the type of instruments he had in the flight deck as well as further information on the pilot's flight experience.

Major Hayes had also been on a training mission that day, but it was one where he was acting as an instructor, working with Major Riddle in the new A-10 Thunderbolt II C-model aircraft.

"I decided to get Major Nester on the radio too. It made more sense for him to escort the pilot so I could finish my upgrade training, but for awhile, the pilot did have three A-10s flying with him to help," Major Hayes said.

Back at Whiteman, the control tower and the operations group were working to assist the pilot also, searching for clear skies and runways in the nearby area for the pilot to land.

"Finally, we were about 20 miles south of here and decided that Springfield would be the best place to land," Major Nester said. "It had the best weather and it was our best chance to help him down."

At that point, Major Nester took the next few minutes to practice descents from above the clouds.

"We practiced descents in the clear skies at about 6,000 to 8,000 feet," he said.

Major Nester was able to give the pilot accurate approach information so he could line up with the runway coordinates from 50 miles out, all while still above the clouds.

"I was trying to stay right there with him, but it was hard because the fastest he could go about 160 knots (about 184 mph) and the slowest an A-10 can go is about 130 knots (about 150 mph,)" Major Nester said. "My plan was to stay on his wing, close to him, in case he accidentally turned into the clouds."

Disorientation when flying is extremely common, Major Nester said. Not only does it take keen instincts, but for those who lack sufficient experience, it can be easy to get off track.

Once he was ready for his first descent, the major realized the pilot would need a little more coaching.

"He was only going about 100 knots and that can be really dangerous," Major Nester said.

The pilot, who had accidentally pulled up while turning, was back above the clouds and no closer to a safe landing.

"I coached him back to the runway and eventually he got through the clouds; he had to descend through about 3,000 feet of weather, which normally isn't that bad, and eventually he made it to the runway."

At that point, Major Nester knew the pilot was safely on the ground and he headed back to Whiteman.

While he did not complete his original training mission that day, Major Nester assisted a stranded pilot in what could have turned into a devastating event. With the assistance of the entire A-10 community, the pilot was able to make a safe landing.

"It was really our formation-flying training and situational awareness that made it easier for us to help him down," he said. "Formation flying teaches us to fly close to each other even through the clouds. In our one year of pilot training, about 15-20 percent of it is practicing just that. Also, we have training in many of the things (the pilot) had not thought of--like checking the weather, having an alternate game plan for saving fuel and navigational training."

The A-10's primary mission is close air support, and in many ways - this mission surely proved that.

Maj. Steve Nester, 303rd Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, led a civilian pilot to a safe landing March 11, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. after the pilot told control towers he was low on fuel and unable to make a landing due to the weather. (U.S. Air Force photo) Hi-res


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