November 19, 2008 (by MSgt. Brian Davidson) - Radios set to the emergency response channels squawked an unusual message from the Base Command on the morning of November 12 with the announcement that an F-16 was less than 10 minutes out of Baghdad IAP with an in-flight emergency.
Firefighters from the 447th ECES respond to an emergency landing by F-16C block 50 #90-0824 from the 14th FS at Sather AB on November 12th, 2008. The pilot was nearing the end of an extended combat sortie in coordination with ground forces in the area when an engine malfunction warning prompted him to declare an in-flight emergency and seek to land at the nearest suitable airfield. [USAF photo by MSgt. Brian Davidson]
The message was unusual because the airfield, shared by the civilian airport and Sather Air Base, is wholly dedicated to supporting heavy airlift and rotary wing aircraft, not small, supersonic fighter jets like the F-16 (#90-0824
) that was on final approach.
Chief Master Sgt. Pablo Valverde, the 447th Air Expeditionary Group superintendent, also heard the call and immediately knew he should respond. While the chief is normally responsible for taking care of the needs of Sather's enlisted members, he was uniquely qualified to help in this emergency.
Base firefighters, airfield operations specialists and other rescue and emergency response personnel scrambled to get in place along the runway as the F-16 pilot touched down with his wingman flying along side. The landing went smoothly, but rescue workers had no way of knowing what caused the pilot to make the emergency call to land.
As the aircraft taxied to a safe parking area on the north side of the airfield, Chief Valverde went out to meet the emergency response forces.
Chief Valverde is deployed from his position as the command chief with the 944th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. He has spent most of his 30-year career as an aircraft weapons specialist. His aircraft experience includes the F-4E Phantom fighter, the B-52 Stratofortress heavy bomber and the F-16. His experience spans both active-duty time and service as an Air Reserve Technician.
After the aircraft had shut down, some firefighters established a cordon, while others moved in to help the pilot and ensure the aircraft was not in any immediate danger.
Once the on-scene commander gave the all clear, Chief Valverde ensured the bombs, missiles and 20-mm M61-A1 Gatling gun were all properly disarmed and safe.
"When I inspected the weapons, I was pleased that one of the firefighters also had previous F-16 experience, and had properly installed all the safety pins, and that the rest of the fire team did everything by the numbers to ensure that the pilot and aircraft were safe," the chief said.
"I followed standard operating procedures to safe the gun system and made a full inspection of the aircraft weapons with assistance from Tech. Sgt. Scott Kaufman, a North Dakota Air National Guard firefighter from the 119th Air Wing in Fargo.
"Sergeant Kaufman's training on emergency procedures on the F-16 and my weapons experience allowed us to properly safe the aircraft and munitions," Chief Valverde added.
The pilot was nearing the end of an extended combat sortie in coordination with ground forces in the area when an engine malfunction warning prompted him to declare an in-flight emergency and seek to land at the nearest suitable airfield. Unfortunately he was not able to return to his deployed station at Joint Base Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad because the runway there had just been closed due to an unrelated F-16 fire. Baghdad International Airport was the best available option.
"Our airfield is not generally suitable for fighter operations due to considerable pavement cracking and structural problems both on the runway and the taxiways," explained Capt. Mark Oden, 447th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron director of operations, who is deployed from the 86th Operations Support Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. "Fighter aircraft may use this airfield during emergencies. Once an aircraft has landed, it must taxi off the runway and shut down immediately." Any further movement makes it very likely that these aircraft would ingest foreign object debris, such as gravel, into the engine and possibly cause a catastrophic failure.
Captain Oden explained that when the F-16 entered BIAP airspace, Iraqi and U.S. Air Force air traffic controllers, under the supervision of Staff Sgt. Erin Baugh, deployed from the 88th Operations Support Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, took control of the situation and ensured the fighter was cleared to land. Upon landing at 9:05 a.m., the tower controllers provided the pilot with detailed procedures for the engine shut-down location and advised him of the potential dangers on the airfield.
After the fire department released the aircraft, the 447th EOSS Transient Alert team took over. They towed the aircraft to a safe location off of the main taxiway, which posed a whole new challenge.
"Our Transient Alert team is very experienced at working with even the largest of transport aircraft, but not with fighters," Captain Oden said. "They had to use the equipment on hand and improvise a way to safely get the job done."
Master Sgt. Lewis Shedd, Staff Sgt. Marc McKenna and Staff Sgt. Ezekiel Stys went beyond their experience level in figuring out how to tow the fighter. The total experience between all three of them is more than 35 years on heavy airlift aircraft, but not a single day working on F-16s.
The team modified an aircraft tow bar in order to match it to the nose landing gear of the fighter. After reversing a pair of brackets on the bar, they moved the aircraft from the civilian to the military side of the airfield.
A few hours after the aircraft arrived at Sather, a maintenance recovery team from Balad arrived on station. With continued help from the 447th EOSS team, they diagnosed and repaired the problem. An engine test run confirmed the aircraft was ready to fly, and before dawn Nov. 13, it was on its way back to Balad.
"It took help from our fire department, airfield team and even the civil engineers who carefully cleaned the runway to get the fighter airborne again," Captain Oden said. "It took approximately 17 hours from when the pilot declared the emergency until the F-16 was on its way home. That's a testament to the teamwork of our active duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen."