December 13, 2007 (by SSgt. John Gordinier) - Get out! Get out now! No pilot ever wants to hear those words, but they were ringing in Major Jeffrey Cunningham's ears as he sat on the flightline at Nellis AFB, with his F-16 Fighting Falcon on fire.
USAF F-16C block 50 #91-0381 from the 55th FS makes a soft landing on the flightline
A member of the 55th Fighter Squadron from Shaw AFB
, S.C., Major Cunningham and members of his unit were on base providing support for a Weapons Instructor Course.
Major Cunningham, the 55th FS
assistant director of operations, was preparing to taxi to the runway for take off when his aircraft caught fire.
It was near dusk Nov. 14 and Staff Sgt. Bradley Miner, a crew chief with the 55th AMU, had been preparing to launch the aircraft for the second go of the day.
He told Major Cunningham he was clear to start.
Once cleared, the major selected jet fuel starter 2.
JFS is a motor within the aircraft that spins up the engine's revolutions per minute to a point where the ignition process is continued by bringing the throttle from "off" to "idle."
"As the RPMs reached about 25 percent, I brought the throttle over 'the hump,'" Major Cunningham said. "As I did this, I heard Sergeant Miner tell me something over the intercom system. I couldn't quite hear what he said initially so I asked him to repeat it as I felt a jolt a lot more pronounced than usual."
Sergeant Miner noticed hydraulic fluid streaming from the left wheel well of the F-16.
"The next words I heard from Sergeant Miner were 'Get out! Get out now,'" the major said.
That's when the sergeant and major heard a loud "pop."
"The hydraulic fluid leak got worse and was coming out at 3,000 (pounds per square inch), which caused the hydraulic fluid to atomize," Sergeant Miner said. "With the JFS still spinning it ingested the atomized fluid up the intake and out the exhaust as a fire ball."
"While performing emergency shutdown procedures, I happened to glance over my left shoulder and see the side of the jet was on fire," Major Cunningham said.
The flash fire caught the attention of Tech. Sgt. Fredric Wilson, the 55th AMU flightline expeditier and crew chief Staff Sgt. Lee Walden.
"I was preparing my aircraft when I heard the impressive boom," Sergeant Wilson said. "The fire lit up the flightline sky and without thinking I sprinted to a Halon bottle extinguisher."
"From the way I was parked, the winds blew back and forth and the fire quickly got bigger and closer to the cockpit," the pilot said. "My canopy was still open.
"As I reached down to finish emergency shutdown procedures, my left elbow started to feel extremely hot and I noticed the flames had reached my location and were dancing around my left side," Major Cunningham said. "The back of my neck heated up and I felt my elbow heating up even more. I decided that it was time for me to try and start disconnecting myself from the jet as fast as I could."
While unfastening many harnesses and straps, the major periodically glanced back at the fire and noticed from where he was sitting he could not see the left external fuel tank, which was carrying 370 gallons of JP-8 fuel. It was engulfed in flames.
"I knew if the fuel tank went, we'd all be in trouble," Major Cunningham said. "It felt like an eternity trying to disconnect everything fast enough to jump out. I even considered ejecting."
As the pilot yanked the communications cord to disconnect, he heard one of the flight members transmit a broadcast call over the guard frequency, which is always monitored by everyone.
The broadcast said, "Emergency, an aircraft is on fire in row five."
This would ensure that the fire department and crash crews would respond quickly, Sergeant Miner said.
Their emergency response training kicking in, Sergeants Miner, Wilson and Walden all grabbed Halon extinguishers and began to extinguish the blaze.
Unstrapped, Major Cunningham egressed out of the cockpit.
"I've had to ground egress two other times in my F-16 career for less serious problems and it's a long way down to the ground," Major Cunningham said. "I tried to do my best Chuck Norris, athletic jump to the ground and instead, at 34 years old, I flopped to the ground in a very uncoordinated and unathletic, goofy-looking manner. I ran about 50 feet away before I looked back.
"The fire was pretty much subdued by a cadre of excellent Airmen who didn't flinch and took control by extinguishing the fire with the pre-positioned fire bottle equipment," Major Cunningham said. "The fire was completely put out before the fire crews were able to arrive due to the bravery of the maintenance troops."
The sergeants' actions earned them the Lt. Erwin Shaw Ace Award, which was presented Nov. 28 by Col. James Post, the 20th Fighter Wing commander. They also received coins from many commanders and chiefs.
"I walked away from the whole event with only a warped plastic pencil and a tender elbow," Major Cunningham said. "I have huge respect for Sergeants Wilson, Miner and Walden and their supervision for the quick reaction and courage they displayed in saving the aircraft and the guy sitting in it."
No pilot ever wants to find themselves sitting on the flightline in an aircraft on fire, but if they do, they know today's dedicated Airmen are trained and ready to help.