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In-flight emergency turns into safe, routine mission

Lance Davis, 88th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control supervisor, and Staff Sgt. Tyler Downhour, air traffic controller, man the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, air traffic control tower on August 2, 2021. On July 17, the pair responded to a C-5 Galaxy aircraft crew declaring an emergency when it appeared they would have to make a wheels-up landing. (U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)

Lance Davis, 88th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control supervisor, and Staff Sgt. Tyler Downhour, air traffic controller, man the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, air traffic control tower on August 2, 2021. On July 17, the pair responded to a C-5 Galaxy aircraft crew declaring an emergency when it appeared they would have to make a wheels-up landing. (U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Although prepared through rigorous training for the worst, the last call an air traffic controller wants to get is an aircraft in distress.

On July 17, a C-5 Galaxy aircrew en route to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base declared an in-flight emergency due to the nose-landing gear being temporarily disabled.

“I got a call from our airfield-management folks that there was a potential emergency inbound C-5 with gear problems,” said Lance Davis, 88th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control supervisor.

Airfield management informed Davis it confirmed with the pilots aboard that the aircraft’s front nose wheel was inoperable.

“In my career, I have worked hundreds of emergencies involving gear problems, but it is very uncommon that an aircraft comes in that cannot lower their landing gear,” he said.

It was later confirmed that not only were the aircraft’s front gears inoperable, but the pilot planned to make a wheels-up belly landing, Davis added.

Although the situation was looking dire that Saturday night, the air traffic controllers remained calm, focused on their checklist and coordinated with other organizations across the base. They even kept the chaos under control during a shift change.

“I was the on-duty supervisor at the beginning of the situation and my shift was going to be over in about 20 minutes,” Davis said.

Around that same time, Staff Sgt. Tyler Downhour, the 88 OSS air traffic control watch tower supervisor, was coming into work to prepare for his overnight shift.

Weekends inside the tower are usually quiet with very little activity, but Davis said Downhour had no choice but to come in going “zero to a thousand miles an hour.”

“As soon as I walked up the tower, my expectations of a normal shift went out the door,” Downhour recalled. “But the way it played out was much better than I was expecting initially.

“On a pilot’s worst day of their careers, we have to be at our absolute best. It does not matter if it is the last 10 minutes of the shift or as soon as you show up to work. It is something we hope we do not have to deal with, but something we train our entire careers for.”

Once word started to get out about this in-flight emergency, WPAFB organizations such as airfield management, the fire department, emergency services, the 88th Medical Group and 88th Air Base Wing leadership geared up to prepare for what could happen.

Base officials also reached out to local fire departments and first responders.

“After I gave notifications to my chief to make him aware, I started getting crews together before we got dispatched out,” said Bryan Weeks, WPAFB fire department assistant chief. “We did not go to our normal locations, due to the fact that if the aircraft did crash then we would not be entirely sure where the aircraft would end up.”

Jeff Kitzmiller, WPAFB fire department deputy chief, elaborated on situation, and how the timing allowed firefighters and other organizations to be prepared as much as possible.

“The good thing about this incident is we had time,” he said. “We received a call saying that the aircraft was 38 minutes out, and we usually only get about five minutes before we have to be ready.

“The pilots knew they were in trouble, and being able to make contact allowed us to plan and stage everything prior to them landing.”

Ultimately, a potential accident was averted as the C-5 landed safely after the pilots reported they found a way to reengage the nose gear. 

“After the aircraft came and touched down as softly as I have ever seen a plane land without any problems, I had probably the best drive home in my 31-year career,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, it was those pilots and the aircrew that deserved all of the credit for getting the aircraft down on the ground safely.”

In emergency situations like these, WPAFB’s relationships with surrounding cities and agencies are paramount in securing the safety of everyone inside and outside the base, officials said.

“There is a huge amount of experience within our department and outside agencies,” Weeks said. “Not only are we experts with airfield and aircraft emergencies, but we also had medics coming in that run at least a thousand medical calls a year.

“Having that availability to bring everyone in with different experiences is huge for us. Rather than focus on putting out a fire and also helping a patient, we can just focus on putting out those fires and have full confidence that our base medics and outside medical staff can help those patients.”

Although each agency is trained to properly respond and possibly save lives, it is the diversity of skill sets and association of all agencies that plays a key role in protecting people and assets.

“The pilots of that aircraft may have been the ones who landed, but it was a complete team effort of all entities, both inside and outside WPAFB, that led to everyone being prepared to do their job,” Davis said. “Nobody ever wants these kind of situations to happen, but that is the reason our Airmen train and work the way they do so that they can be prepared for any scenario that may arise.”