This Michigan Air National Guard Red Devils Pilot Was One Very Cool Customer When Things Got Sideways
On July 20th 2017, a pair of Fairchild Rebublic A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft assigned to the 107th Fighter Squadron (FS) Red Devils, of the 127th Wing, Michigan Air National Guard (ANG) took off with another pair of A-10Cs from their home base at Selfridge Air Nation Guard Base (ANGB). The four jets were headed northwest toward the Grayling Air Gunnery Range located in north-central lower-Michigan. Here’s a short video about the Grayling facility uploaded by YouTuber Q100 Y101.
Two of the pilots heading to Grayling, Captain Brett DeVries and Major Shannon Vickers, were both highly experienced Warthog pilots and veterans of multiple combat deployments, logging more than a hundred combat sorties each. A flight to Grayling for some bombing and gunnery practice, similar to hundreds of other similar flights for both pilots, was to be their mission that day. It was a flight far removed from a combat mission, but no less potentially dangerous.
All four jets completed the bombing practice portion of their flight and transitioned to gunnery. Captain DeVries, flying A-10C 80-0264 (CN A10-0614), had just begun a second run on the target at about 1340 local time when he pulled the trigger on his Warthog’s 30 millimeter GAU-8 Avenger multi-barrel cannon. The cannon malfunctioned (it has not yet been determined exactly how or why), causing the A-10C to shed its canopy and suddenly subject DeVries to the full force of the 330 knot breeze, which promptly knocked his helmet back against his ejection seat, dazing him. DeVries quickly initiated a climb from low altitude in order to clear the other aircraft and sort things out.
Damage to the aircraft was extensive. Not only was the canopy missing (the windscreen was still intact), but both the primary and secondary radios were out. There were also multiple nose-area access panels that had been popped open or blown off by the gun malfunction. DeVries was concerned about loose material getting sucked out of the cockpit and being ingested by the engines. But his biggest concern was that the nose landing gear was indicating unsafe.
Ejection was a consideration but the pilot was concerned that the canopy separation might have damaged the ejection seat mechanism. After discussing the situation with technical experts on the ground via Vickers, DeVries made for the nearest military runway located at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), co-located with the Alpena County Regional Airport about 25 minutes flying time northeast of the Grayling range near the coast of Thunder Bay on Lake Huron.
Hunkered down behind the windscreen, DeVries continued to look at options. The landing gear was his real challenge. Nose gear collapse on landing might cause the jet to do all sorts of things- all of them bad. But when the Warthog’s landing gear are retracted the main wheels are still slightly exposed under the wings of the jet. This arrangement has saved more than one A-10C from sustaining additional damage when belly landing. DeVries was betting that the exposed wheels would help him land his stricken Warthog as well.
A test of the landing gear yielded indications that the nose gear was indeed unsafe, so DeVries made his approach to the runway at Alpena with gear up, minimal sink rate, and carrying just enough speed to maintain controllability if his A-10C. Vickers was right off his wing calling out feet above the ground as DeVries let his aircraft down on centerline. DeVries exited the aircraft quickly after it stopped and met the emergency crews waiting for his arrival.
This mishap is believed to be the only time during the more than 40 years since the A-10 entered service that a pilot has landed a Warthog with the landing gear retracted and no canopy. Captain DeVries was not injured. A-10C 80-0264 sustained some damage but will likely be repaired and may even return to the Red Devils. DeVries and Vickers both credit their extensive training for their ability to deal with the emergency effectively and safely. The mishap is being investigated and Vickers’ observation of “a donut of gas” around the fuselage is an interesting facet of the inquiry.