PATRICK SPACE FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) – On a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon, a pilot takes the controls of a US Navy TBM Avenger warplane as it flies over Cocoa Beach, in Florida.
As he prepares to perform aerial maneuvers and entertain thousands of people, he soon discovers a problem. At approximately 1:20 p.m. on April 17, he declared an in-flight emergency and requested clearance to land immediately.
“I have a TBM Avenger due to land now, it’s an emergency,” the air boss told air traffic controllers at the tower at Patrick Space Force Base in Florida. An air boss is the person responsible for all aspects of operations involving aircraft at an air show.
David Beckwith, chief air traffic controller of 45 Logistics Readiness Squadron, with 40 years of experience, took the call.
“We had a B-52 (Stratofortress) that had just landed and had to turn around and taxi back on the long runway,” Beckwith said. “I alerted Eddie, one of our air traffic controllers, who immediately grabbed the binoculars to see if he could spot the Avenger.”
Beckwith also alerted Patrick SFB’s fire and emergency services team, base operations, command post and medics to the situation. The 45th Civil Engineer Squadron FES team dispatched units to the flight line.
“I only had a visual of the tunnel boring machine for a second,” said Edward Terhune, 45th LRS ATC. “We were trying to land it on our short track so we could get it away from populated areas. As we lost sight of him, I started communicating with the pilot of a Stearman biplane to see if he could locate him.
A common practice with in-flight emergencies is to ask pilots to change radio frequencies so that they can communicate with tower air traffic controllers. However, given the situation and the limited time, Beckwith said the decision was made to allow the air boss to maintain contact with the pilot until he was on the ground.
“We couldn’t locate the tunnel boring machine, so I asked the air boss, ‘Where is it? Beckwith said.
“He didn’t succeed,” replied the air boss. “He’s about a half mile north of the base, in the water about 50 feet offshore.”
Beckwith passed this information on to the FES team who then responded at the beach, while Terhune worked with the biplane pilot to get updates from the crash site.
Airman 1st Class Keith Johnson, 45th CES firefighter, was part of the team that responded to the beach, along with a medic and a lifeguard swimmer.
“When the call arrived on the tower crash phone, we were dispatched and expected an in-flight emergency near the flight line,” Johnson said. “We had just come around the back of the station when we heard the pilot was going to land in the water.”
This reality meant Johnson and his teammates had to go from a flight line response to a beach response and quickly.
“We have to be able to do this at all times, especially in an airplane emergency as the plane is moving, so we have to be flexible,” Johnson said. “A lot of things crossed my mind on the way to the crash site, such as the potential for multiple casualties and the possible need to help the pilot out of the plane. But I just focused on my training.
Airmen assigned to the FES team complete training on a variety of skills each month, including structural fire response, water rescue, hazardous material spills and medical emergencies.
“We provide a lot of different services and we need to maintain expertise in everything we do from fire response to water rescue,” said Mark Palm, 45th CES FES fire chief. “We have rescued people from burning and sinking boats, responded to fires and several medical emergencies. Medical responses actually represent almost half of our responses. “
Once at the scene, Johnson served as an observer for the lifeguard swimmer as he walked towards the pilot who was already off the plane. He assisted the pilot as he made his way to shore and made sure he had completed a medical assessment.
When Johnson reflects on that day, he says that one thing brings him peace.
“This beach was crowded,” he said. “There must have been several hundred people on the beach that day. I am grateful that no one was hurt.
Patrick SFB’s air traffic controllers undergo training every month. They must also meet the strict standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Air Force.
“I’m glad that everything went well and that neither the pilot nor anyone else was injured,” said Beckwith. “It could have been a lot worse. “