OFF-THE-CUFF - T-6 pilot makes harrowing emergency landing
By Staff Sgt. Clinton Atkins, Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs Directorate at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Te
/ Published July 10, 2013
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- BOOM! The canopy shatters as if hit by a bowling ball. Inside the cockpit tiny shards of glass pierce the student pilot's eye. Debris from the blast also penetrates the skin and flight suit of Capt. Brandon Wolf, the instructor pilot. Bleeding from his neck, Wolf instinctively takes control of the aircraft, which has just touched down on the runway but is still hauling at nearly 100 mph. He needs to get the aircraft stopped and fast. Easier said than done. The blast fogged the windscreen, creating a monster blind spot. He can't see anything in front of him!
"We were doing just a touch and go landing," said Wolf, a first assignment instructor pilot with the 37th Flying Training Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. "We touched down, and it was an uneventful landing."
Then all hell broke loose.
When the student pilot pushed the throttle up to take off again, his sleeve snagged the canopy fracturing system handle. So the handle pulled up as he pushed the power up. When the canopy fracturing system handle is pulled, it sends a charge to a detonation cord that is laced throughout the aircraft canopy's frame, causing the canopy to explode outward into two pieces.
So what went wrong?
"While the student pilot's sleeve caught the canopy fracturing system handle, the location of the handle in the aircraft also contributed to the mishap," said George Chappel, Air Education and Training Command flight safety manager.
Inside the T-6, the canopy fracturing system has a "T" shaped handle that is inauspiciously located on the left side of the cockpit in front of the throttle lever. When performing the action of increasing the throttle, there is considerable potential for a loose article of clothing, such as a sleeve, to catch on the handle, Chappel said.
Those two factors combined put Wolf in dire straits.
"At first, I was thinking to myself, 'That was a good landing.' Then all of a sudden, 'What the heck!? What just happened!?" the Saginaw, Mich., native said. "I felt the thump of the explosion, and at first I thought it was a bird strike. I thought we hit a really big bird."
The fracturing system activated with the T-6 traveling at nearly 85 knots, the same speed at which liftoff occurs if the control stick is pulled aft.
Wolf had to act quickly.
"I instantly grabbed the controls (from the student) out of instinct," he said. "It took a second for my brain to process, 'Hey, we're still at max power!' We could have been airborne at the speed we were going, so I pulled the power back to idle."
And even though he was injured and had no forward visibility, Wolf successfully brought the aircraft to a stop.
The canopy explosion caused minor injuries to both pilots. More than 35 tiny pieces of debris hit Wolf's body and even penetrated his flight suit. Micro shards of glass went into one of the student's eyes, which caused him to miss three weeks of training.
"I was bleeding from my neck and stuff," Wolf said. "The detonation cord actually went through the flight suit. My arm and neck had a bunch of pieces of (detonation) cord in them."
Wolf, an Air Force Academy graduate with three years of experience as a pilot, credits his quick reactions to the instructor pilot training he received.
"(The student) let go, and I instinctively grabbed the controls," he said. "That's something we're taught here; IP defensive techniques is what we call them. I survived because they talk about those defensive techniques of having your hands near the controls ready to go in case something happens. ... My hands were right next to the controls. Especially for a student early on in the program, I'm going to be shadowing him closely -- watching his every move.
"This was something that happened in the blink of an eye. If I hadn't been near the controls or if we'd gone airborne, who knows what would have happened?"
Because of his quick actions, Wolf was credited with saving the life of his student and the $4-million aircraft. As a result, he earned the 2012 Daedalian Exceptional Pilot Award for AETC.
"Captain Wolf did a phenomenal job," said Lt. Col. James Sparrow, 37th FTS commander. "He made a quick decision in the heat of the moment when he had to, and I think that speaks well to his training."