JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. –
A notification crackled through the air traffic control frequency. “All ‘musel’ aircraft, we have a confirmed F-16 crash,” it communicated. “Remain in place and await orders.”
The 1st Helicopter Squadron received the news that an F-16 Fighting Falcon was going down in the National Capital Region at 9:20 a.m. April 5 and responded as fast as they could.
And what was their mission? Rescue the 121st Fighter Squadron pilot.
“Crashes are scary,” said Staff Sgt. Chantal Campbell, 1st HS mission controller. “Before the helicopter arrives on scene, you don’t know what the extent of the damage will be. In my mind, I was hoping and praying that nobody was hurt.”
The aircraft crashed approximately six miles southwest from JBA after a routine training mission became a little less routine. However, the response that occurred after the accident was swift and procedural to ensure the safe evacuation of the downed Airman.
Although the squadron’s usual duties involve locally airlifting military and civilian leaders, they are always ready to provide support in the form of medical evacuation.
“Here at the 1st HS, we do anything from our normal job to training missions to medical evacuation,” said Capt. Zachary Minner, 1st HS evaluator pilot. “This task required a different mission set, but it’s one of many we train for.”
Within the 1st HS, the aircraft mishap response began when the mission controllers at the squadron received a support request from the JBA air traffic control tower and then routed it through their leadership. Upon approval, the mission controller hub, called “the bridge,” relayed the tasker to two helicopter crews.
“We were in the right place at the right time to bring the pilot home,” Lt. Col. Marcus Jackson, 1st HS director of operations. “We had a training sortie going on less than five miles away and luckily, they had a flight doctor on board. They were just correctly positioned to actually go in and make the recovery of the pilot.”
As the Airmen flew toward the crash site, the bridge received additional information about the situation from military and local agencies, and relayed it to the helicopter crews.
“When the aircraft were first assigned to check out the scene, we didn’t know what they were going to find,” Campbell said. “This mission was different than what we’re used to doing; lives were at stake.”
Equipped with the UH-1N Iroquois, the flight crew were able to locate the downed pilot, land in a nearby field, assess the Airman’s health and leave the scene.
Despite uncertainties preceding the mission, a helicopter crew recovered the pilot and brought him back to JBA by 9:50 a.m., only 30 minutes after the squadron was notified of the crash. He was then transported to the nearest hospital and determined to have sustained non-life threatening injuries.
“When [the mission controllers] found out that the pilot was standing and waving his hands as the crews approached him, we breathed a sigh of relief,” Campbell said. “To know he was actually ok meant everything worked out for the better.”
The team effort between the mission controllers at JBA and the helicopter crew out at the site ensured the mission was completed safely and efficiently.
“They responded to the 1st HS standard,” Jackson said. “[The mission controllers] did a fantastic job on the bridge and the two aircraft that were in the air were ready to go.”
Following the crash and pilot recovery, the 1st HS also provided surveillance assistance for locating aircraft parts and documenting the scene.
“The fates were in our favor that day,” Minner said. “Our crews were prepared to respond and everything lined up perfectly so we could execute the mission effectively.”