One of the gifts of aviation is that the experience of flying is so powerful that unique moments become etched in your memory. Whether its your first flight, your first solo, or that trip that you survived by the skin of your teeth, you are left with stories to tell. And the best part is that most people actually enjoy hearing them!
My first assignment
My first assignment in the Air Force was to fly the C-21 Learjet at Scott Air Force Base. The jet was affectionately known as the “Barbie Jet”. It was a small, nimble, and sporty plane. It could climb like a rocket, especially on a cool winter day. Our unit’s official mission was to fly DVs (mostly generals and congressmen) to meetings around the nation but we also would focus on training so that pilots could become aircraft commanders faster when they moved on to larger aircraft after this first assignment.
Over the course of three years, I flew a number of amazing people. I carried countless senior government leaders, a Medal of Honor recipient, dozens of patients, and even Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher after he served as an honorary commander for the day at an Air Force base.
There I was…
Yet there is one experience that sticks out in my memory. Back in early 2005, I was assigned a mission to fly a general to McChord AFB. That mission cancelled but our squadron still needed to fly the hours that had been allocated to the jet that day. As a first lieutenant and relatively new pilot, I was paired with a more experienced Major for some ‘High Density’ airport training on the West Coast. We flew to Portland International, grabbed lunch, and planned the flight to head back home non-stop–taking full advantage of a strong winter jet stream.
The return flight was uneventful. We cruised in the mid-30s and had over 100 knots of tailwind to make the return trip easy. When we were about 20 minutes away from Scott Air Force Base, the approach controller asked if we had any reserve fuel to help out an airliner who had an issue. We didn’t have a ton of extra gas but we had enough to offer some assistance. We figured could always divert to Saint Louis Lambert International, if necessary. So we said, “sure!” The controller replied with:
Uhh, that’d be great. It’s an American MD-80 with a gear problem. They’ve done a low pass but we couldn’t get a great visual on it. He’s holding south of you to burn off fuel. He’s at 6,000 in the hold. I’ll vector you so that you enter the hold below him. Maintain 5,000 and turn heading 160 degrees. Once you have him in sight, let me know.
Since it was my leg, I dialed 160 degrees and felt butterflies in my belly for the first time in a while while flying. You never want to hear that another aviator is in distress but I was glad we were around to help however we could. I figured this intercept wouldn’t be too big of a deal. I had flown formation in the T-1 Jayhawk during pilot training so I generally knew what to expect. Technically this wasn’t even a formation. We’d just have to use many of the same techniques to be a good chase ship.
After a few minutes of flying and a few gentle turns from the controller, we saw the shiny MadDog in the hold with a late winter’s afternoon sky backlighting the jet. The controller gave us a great intercept heading that made the meet up look easy. We called the MadDog in sight.
We’re flying below an MD-80!
We entered the hold and sped up to align ourselves directly under the aircraft to take a look. We switched our other radio to an interplane frequency and spoke with the American captain. He described what we should see. As an avgeek who grew up near DFW airport, I recognized the angle of the nose gear and the mains on the MD-80. The gear was extended and the support trunnions looked extended. The only unusual part was that the gear doors were open. The captain mentioned that it was to be expected for the issue they were experiencing. The American crew thanked us for our help. We departed the hold and landed back at our home base with close to min fuel remaining.
When we landed, we recapped the day before heading home. It struck me at that moment how cool of a job I now had. As a 23 year old kid, the government trusted me to fly a multi-million dollar jet to fly to the busiest airports in the country. Then on this ‘routine’ training flight, I was able to see my favorite airliner up close and help out fellow aviators who were having a tough day. This wasn’t a normal job. It was a dream come true!
The next day I shared our story around the water cooler back in the squadron. Someone recommended that I call American to see what happened. I left my e-mail on a voicemail from a number I found online but never expected to hear back from them. The next day though, I received an e-mail stating that the flight landed without incident and all 125 passengers and crew were safe. That was a satisfying feeling.
In typical Air Force fashion though, our assistance was translated into a bullet on my very first officer performance review. It made us sound like superheroes. To this day, that OPR bullet makes me chuckle. More importantly though, that experience became a memory that I’ll treasure forever.