On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, a pilot mans the controls of a TBM Avenger, a U.S. Navy warplane, as he soars over Cocoa Beach, Florida.
As he prepares to perform aerial maneuvers and entertain thousands, he soon discovers a problem. At approximately 1:20 p.m., April 17, he declares an in-flight emergency and requests permission to land immediately.
“I have a TBM Avenger that needs to land now, it is an emergency,” the air boss said to the air traffic controllers in the tower at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida. An air boss is the person responsible for all aspects of operations involving aircraft during an air show.
David Beckwith, 45th Logistics Readiness Squadron lead air traffic controller, with 40 years of experience, took the call.
“We had a B-52 (Stratofortress) that just landed and needed to turn around and back taxi 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 the Patrick SFB Fire and Emergency Services team, base operations, command post and medical staff about the situation. The 45th Civil Engineer Squadron FES team dispatched units to the flight line.
“I only had a visual of the TBM for a second,” said Edward Terhune, 45th LRS ATC. “We were trying to get him to land on our short runway so we could keep him away from populated areas. Since 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 have pilots change radio frequencies so they can communicate with air traffic controllers in the tower. However, given the situation and 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 TBM so I asked the air boss, ‘Where is he?’ Beckwith said.
“He didn’t make it,” the air boss replied. “He’s roughly a half-mile north of the base, in the water about 50 feet off shore.”
Beckwith relayed that information to the FES team who then responded to the beach, while Terhune worked with the pilot of the biplane to get updates from the crash site.
Airman 1st Class Keith Johnson, 45th CES firefighter, was a part of the team that responded to the beach, along with a medic and rescue swimmer.
“When the call came over the crash phone from the tower, we were dispatched and we were expecting an in-flight emergency near the flight line,” Johnson said. “We were just coming around the back side of the station when we heard the pilot was going to land in the water.”
This reality meant Johnson and his teammates had to adjust from a flight line response to a beach response and quickly.
“We have to be capable of doing that at any time, especially with an aircraft emergency because the aircraft is moving, so we need to be flexible,” Johnson said. “A lot went through my mind on the way to the crash site such as the potential for multiple victims and the possible need to assist the pilot with getting out of the aircraft. But I just focused on my training.”
Airmen assigned to the FES team complete training on a variety of skills each month including responding to structural fires, water rescue, hazardous material spills and medical emergencies.
“We provide many different services and we have to maintain expertise in everything we do from responding to fires 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 account for almost half of our responses.”
Once on scene, Johnson served as a spotter for the rescue swimmer as he made his way to the pilot who was already out of the aircraft. He assisted the pilot as he made his way to the shore and ensured he completed a medical evaluation.
When Johnson reflects on that day, he said one thing brings him peace.
“That beach was packed,” he said. “There must have been several hundred people on the beach that day. I am thankful nobody was hurt.”
Beckwith shares Johnson’s sentiment and credits how well things went from a response perspective to training.
“It all happened so fast,” Beckwith said. “We have checklists in the tower but we didn’t have time to plot a cordon or open the checklists and find out what the next steps were. Our decisions were based on experience and instinct. We train so much we know what the checklists say. We knew we had to get the fire department out there so we did that.”
Air traffic controllers at Patrick SFB complete training each month. They must also meet strict standards outlined by the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Air Force. Additionally, prior to being able to work in the tower on their own, ATCs must complete a certification program.
“I am glad everything worked out and neither the pilot nor anyone else was hurt,” Beckwith said. “It could have been much worse.”
“Not every mishap has a positive outcome,” he said. “I am glad there was no loss of life, because when that happens, it is brutal. That is something you carry with you forever.”