In-flight emergency: Cadets safely land after aircraft's radios catch fire

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Two Academy Flying Team cadets relied on their instincts and training to safely land their T-51A after its radios caught fire 500 feet in the air.

On July 9, 2013, Cadet 1st Class Stefan Morell and Cadet 2nd Class James Gehring had been flying for about 90 minutes on a training sortie and were close to landing when thick, acrid smoke surged into the cockpit.

"It was hard to see and breathe," Morell said. "We popped open the windows, vents and made a quick radio call to the tower."

The radios in their aircraft, call sign "Bolt 77," simultaneously combusted, causing an electrical fire. Morell maintained control of the aircraft and ran through the checklist for smoke fume elimination with Gehring.

"We immediately turned off all electrical switches and had to shout to one another to communicate," Morrell said. "We looked for light gun signals below. When the tower realizes they can't communicate with you, they'll point a high-powered flashlight at you. When you see a flashing green light that means you're clear to land."

Gehring said one of the standards in the 557th Flying Training Squadron is for a pilot to rock the wings of their aircraft during radio malfunctions.

"It's a way to notify the tower that your airplane has lost communication," he said. "We rocked our wings and later discovered that the crew in the tower only heard about half of our radio transmission."

Morell said the most challenging moment of the emergency was avoiding a collision with another aircraft.

"We had put out the fire, cleaned up the aircraft and I thought we were good," he said. "We leveled on downwind and then from the corner of my eye I noticed another aircraft in a descending break on top of us. We then made a diving right turn to get out of the way and came about 50-100 feet away from the other plane."

When the electrical system in Bolt 77 went out, Morell and Gehring's transponder failed to operate and their aircraft was no longer on other pilots' radar.

"It's a recipe for everything bad to happen," Gehring said.

Eventually Morell and Gehring were able to smoothly land on runway 34R here.

"Our actions that day were instinctive - they felt natural because we rehearse emergency procedures here regularly," Gehring said.

The training cadets receive at the Academy is second-to-none, Morell said.

"Both Cadet Gehring and I flew in civilian flying clubs before we came to the Academy," he said. "The training I received in the civilian world pales in comparison to the training we've received at the 557th FTS. I can't imagine what would have happened if the incident occurred before I attended the Academy. I wouldn't have any idea what to do."

Morell, a safety officer on the flying team, believes other flying team members would have also successfully handled the emergency.

"I think it's a testament to the 557th FTS, all the long hours they've put into developing young cadets into being future aviators," he said.

This type of malfunction has not occurred in a T-51A in three years, said Lt. Col. Brad Oliver, the 557th FTS commander.

"Our flying team cadets pass a rigorous checkout program prior to being cleared to fly," Oliver said. "Cadets Morell and Gehring responded exactly the way they were trained.
Their actions reflect on their entire team and we, the 557th FTS, could not be more proud of their airmanship, character and leadership as part of the Academy's powered flight team."

Following the emergency, the cadets received the Air Force Chief of Safety Aviation Safety Well Done Award, the Air Education and Training Director of Safety Annual Aircrew of Distinction Award, the AETC Aviation Safety Well Done Award, and the Air Force Recognition Ribbon.

The T-51A is the civilian equivalent of the Cessna 150.