"THREE-LEGGED RACE" IN THE T-6 TEXAN - Instructor pilot, student make amazing landing in broken aircraft
“THREE-LEGGED RACE”: When the flight controls malfunctioned on their T-6 Texan II, an instructor pilot and his student had to figure out a way to land the plane safely back home at Sheppard AFB, Texas. The pilot had only been an instructor for a little over a month, while the student pilot had never even flown solo. (Photo by TSgt Samuel Bendet)
by Timothy Barela
12/1/2011 - SHEPPARD AFB, Texas -- Capt. Frank Baumann was in a three-legged race of sorts. But if he and his partner didn't work in concert, the consequences would be far greater than falling down and scraping a knee. They could crash a multi-million dollar aircraft and be ripped apart in the wreckage.
Their "race" started 13,000 feet in the air, and the thing that "tethered" them together were the broken flight controls in a T-6 Texan II.
On Sept. 13, Baumann, an instructor pilot with the 459th Flying Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and student pilot 2nd Lt. Derek Olivares had to land a T-6 that neither of them had full control over. A flight control malfunction left Baumann with control of the ailerons, which determine the right and left motion of the plane, and Olivares with control of the elevators, which manipulate the up and down motion. Usually only one pilot controls the plane.
Complicating matters, until just a couple of months ago, Baumann had been flying B-52 Bombers out of Barksdale AFB, La. The 36-year-old Fort Still, Okla., native had only been an instructor pilot for a little more than a month. While he had 1,000 flying hours, less than 200 of those had come in the T-6. And the 23-year-old Olivares had even less time in the T-6, or any aircraft for that matter. He had yet to fly solo.
Talk about flying by the seat of your pants!
Earlier that day, the duo had taken off as a standard T-6 sortie to train on spins, basic aircraft control and landings. But when the aircraft in-flight emergency occurred, the flight became a fight to bring the plane -- and themselves -- home safely.
Olivares, a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training student pilot, discovered the flight control problem during recovery from a practice spin maneuver. The Harrison Township, Mich., native said he knew something was wrong when he felt the control stick jump during the spin. His first thought was that Baumann had assumed control of the aircraft, as it felt as though they were fighting over the stick. But Baumann reaffirmed that the student did have full control of the plane.
"When I looked at the flight instruments, they were indicating a left bank even though I had full deflection of the control stick to the right," Olivares said. "That's when I told Captain Baumann there was something wrong with the controls."
Baumann immediately assumed control of the T-6.
"Imagine driving your car down the street and making a right-hand turn, but the car goes left," Baumann said. "Your reaction is to desperately turn the wheel even harder, and you might do that until you crash because it's disorienting. That's kind of the situation we faced but in an aircraft."
When the instructor pilot took over, the first thing he noticed was that the flight controls seemed real sloppy.
"It was really strange, and I was not able to process what was happening at first," he said.
After a few minutes he figured out that he did not have control of the elevator, which hindered their ability to climb and descend. He still managed to stabilize the aircraft by controlling the banking motions with the ailerons and using the trim to make minor stabilizing adjustments to the elevator inputs.
After recovering to level flight, the hair raised on the back of Baumann's neck as he realized the severity of their plight. Without the elevator, they appeared to be headed for an ejection.
"The T-6 has an awesome ejection seat, but so many things can go wrong in a bail out," the instructor said. "So I'd rather not test it."
His main concern was for the safety of his student. He told Olivares to double check all his gear in preparation for an ejection.
"I was really concerned that on one of his first rides that he was all set up because it looked like we were probably going to have to bail out of the airplane," Baumann said. "Even if an ejection works perfectly, it's pretty violent so you want to be strapped in properly. If something is not lined up right, you can get badly injured."
Olivares followed his mentor's advice.
"I checked my harness about three times to make sure that everything was tight and good to go," the student pilot said.
The duo also began troubleshooting the problem.
"I was a fairly new instructor pilot, so I didn't assume to know everything," Baumann said. "It might well be a common malfunction with a simple fix. So I asked Derek to go through the checklist in search of an emergency procedure that lined up with what was occurring."
Baumann reported the in-flight emergency to the supervisor of flying, who directed him to the T-6 operations supervisor, Maj. Gary Greicar.
Greicar immediately gathered an expert think tank of wing leadership, safety and maintenance personnel to help come up with a plan.
"The people on the ground were acting like another crew member," Greicar said. "Our job was to support the pilots with ideas and solutions to safely recover the aircraft."
At first, the ground team came to the same conclusion as Baumann: Without control of the elevators, the plane would be impossible to land. With that in mind, Greicar offered to read the controlled bailout checklist to the pilots as they had their hands full maintaining level flight with a broken airplane.
About that time a chase-ship support aircraft piloted by Capt. Wade Maulsby, 459th FTS instructor pilot, joined up with the stricken aircraft to provide assistance and perform an exterior inspection. The wingman searched for anything unusual.
"He looked over our plane and saw the elevator and trim appeared to be intact," Baumann said.
Maulsby recommended having Olivares check to see if he had control over the elevators. That's when they discovered the student pilot could, indeed, control the elevators. But their troubles certainly weren't over at that point.
"I still had zero control over the elevators, and Derek had zero control over the ailerons," Baumann said.
If they were going to safely land the plane, it was going to take an unorthodox approach with both of them working as one.
"Once we had full comprehension of our situation, we discussed our options," Baumann said. "Leadership left it up to me to decide if we bail out or try to land the crippled aircraft. But I was glad to get everybody's input; because if I was about to do something stupid, I wanted to know about it."
Ultimately, he concluded it was safer to attempt the risky landing, versus an even riskier ejection.
The pilot and his student practiced a half dozen simulated landings in the airspace before even thinking about touching earth.
"I controlled the ailerons, rudder and throttle; he controlled the elevators as I gave him verbal commands," Baumann said.
They reviewed contingency plans and thought through worst-case scenarios while practicing the landing.
"We didn't know what else might be broken on the aircraft, so we had to prepare solutions in case other things went wrong," Baumann said. "And ejecting remained a last-resort option if we decided things just weren't working out."
Racing against the clock while facing decreasing fuel and deteriorating visibility, the crew flew a straight-in approach on a 12,000-foot runway. One misstep here could spell disaster.
"We actually settled the aircraft onto the ground rather smoothly," Baumann said. "It was a pretty nice landing."
His student pilot couldn't have been happier.
"There was lots of celebration and relief when the aircraft was safely on the ground," Olivares said. "We were all excited ... it was an awesome feeling."
A post flight maintenance investigation revealed that a critical component of the flight control system failed, causing the control sticks in the front and rear cockpits to function independently rather than in unison as would normally be the case. As a result of the mishap, the T-6 fleet of 446 aircraft across all Air Education and Training Command bases went through a 100 percent maintenance inspection before returning to flying operations.
Baumann attributed the triumphant flight to communication, training and crew resource management.
"Having a smart wingman and the support and experience on the ground were the main contributors to our success," he said. "It was the whole crew concept. We were getting information from a lot of different sources, and it was important to take advice and find the crucial info that was applicable to us."
But Baumann was especially happy with whom he "ran that three-legged race": his student pilot.
"Derek remained completely calm throughout the emergency," Baumann said. "Some students would have frozen up in a situation like that and been almost useless. To his credit, he stayed focused and never panicked even once."
-- Second Lt. Sara Harper, 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs, Sheppard AFB, Texas, contributed to this article.