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Trial by fire: Enlisted pilot safely lands Global Hawk despite in-flight emergency

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The RQ-4 is a high-altitude, long range, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The RQ-4 is a high-altitude, long range, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The RQ-4 is a high-altitude, long range, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The RQ-4 is a high-altitude, long range, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --

Another aircraft extends its landing gear and slows for touch down. From the outside, everything seems as though it is going according to plan.

Sometimes though appearances can be deceiving.

Master Sgt. Alex, an RQ-4 pilot with the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron and deployed to Det. 1 on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, stepped straight into perhaps the most difficult test of his pilot career on May 9th, 2018.

For Alex there is no cockpit to sit in with his hands on the controls, his aircraft is an RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle, and it’s in trouble. The aircraft has lost communication and the pilots that were on shift before him were in the middle of a crew swap out.

“I was getting briefed as I was walking in,” Alex said. “The aircraft was in the area it uses to ascend and descend when it lost communication. The pilots before me were running through every checklist they had, calling everybody who needed to know, setting everything up so that if the plane didn’t restore communication it would be able to land autonomously.”

While technology was on his side, and the RQ-4 has safeguards in place for moments just like this, it was still a dangerous and serious situation.

When an RQ-4 loses communications it enters into a loitering pattern for a small window of time, before it attempts to land autonomously. Time was running out, Alex picked up responsibility for the aircraft with little time left until it descended to make its autonomous approach.

To add to an already stressful mission, this was the first time that Alex would land an RQ-4 solo.

“I let air traffic control know that I was an emergency aircraft, and that I was coming in to land C1 [without communications],” said Alex. “They did a fantastic job, they cleared everything out of my way, and as the aircraft made its approach, we were able to get a link back with the aircraft for maybe 30 seconds, it was enough for me to switch the aircraft to a line of sight link.”

But with restored communication the problems only came faster, now that he had a link with the aircraft again he found that it had a gear and brake failure.

“So now I have an aircraft coming in for approach and I’m not sure if the gear is going to come down,” Alex said. “We made the decision that, yes, it can come down safely, I gave the order for gear down and to land, and we watched and slowly all three landing gear came down, and the aircraft finally touched down safely.”

Alex remained humble about his accomplishment, saying that the pilots he was replacing had done much of the heavy lifting.

“I think the best way to describe my role is that it was kind of like a football game,” said Alex describing the incident. “The pilots before me, they did a lot of the heavy work, I was just the kicker who came in to make the final play.”

It was a successful resolution to a challenging situation, but as one of the first enlisted pilots in the Air Force, Alex has gotten used to overcoming challenges.

“I was in the first class of enlisted pilots, EPIC-1 [Enlisted Pilot Initial Cadre], and it was a very tough course,” said Alex. “We went through the same exact course the officers do, but because we were the first class, there was a lot of pressure for us to succeed. The training we received, all the different scenarios we ran in the simulator, allowed me to keep my cool and bring the aircraft in safely.”


 

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