JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
On Sept. 18, 2018, a T-6A Texan II training sortie from JBSA-Randolph experienced an in-flight emergency requiring the pilots to eject from the aircraft. The investigation is underway.
Limitations on discussing the technical aspects of the incident present a unique opportunity to focus on the human story so easily lost in a sea of facts, figures and carefully worded press releases; an opportunity to focus on the pilots, the dedicated team of maintenance professionals whose equipment saved their lives and how their destinies became inextricably linked on that warm September afternoon.
Lt. Col. Lee Glenn, mission instructor pilot, and 1st Lt. Nick Donato, his student, joined an exclusive club that day, military aviators who egressed their aircraft without major incident.
“Being shot out of an airplane is, well I haven’t been shot out of a cannon, but I can only expect it would be something like that,” said Glenn.
Having more than 3,800 hours in ejection seat aircraft, he is no stranger to strapping himself to a series of rocket motors available for use at a moment’s notice.
With great (rocket) power comes great responsibility and those ejection seats are maintained by a specialized team at the 12th Operations Support Squadron’s egress shop at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
“We’re talking about 36 components all firing together in the course of 1.4 seconds,” said Jim Pulido, egress shop supervisor.
Such precise operation requires a high level of craftsmanship and wealth of experience to ensure its successful deployment and - with more than 100 years combined military and civilian experience on multiple airframes - that expertise is in no short supply.
The egress shop performs time-critical inspections of T-6 and T-38C Talon aircraft ejection seats and ensures all 36 components in that sequence are ready to perform as advertised.
“We hope that the system is never used, but we take care in making sure all maintenance and inspections are done correctly,” Pulido said.
Above and beyond their technical expertise is the level of care and dedication these maintainers have for the aircrew they support.
“I tell the guys in the shop, when the pilots leave the house, kiss their families goodbye and say ‘see you this afternoon’, our job is to make sure that happens,” Pulido said. “If our equipment failed to operate, I would feel personally responsible to go to those families and explain why our system didn’t work.”
On each sortie pilots board the aircraft with full faith in the equipment working flawlessly, if needed.
“You really have no way to preflight the egress system,” said Glenn. “You’re completely trusting the craftsmen and the attention to detail is there and it can’t fail, or you are not going to make it home.”
The responsibility of securing pilots to the ejection seat and catching them on the way down falls to another of the 12th OSS’s maintenance shops, aircrew flight equipment.
Another talented team maintains all personal aircrew equipment to include helmets, oxygen masks, G-suits, survival kits and in the event of an ejection, the shop ensures the strength of the harnesses attached to the seat and the parachute deployed to bring the pilots safely to the ground.
“I like to think about it like we’re the “last line of defense” for the pilots. We’re the last people to touch their gear before they put it on and go out to the aircraft,” said Dustin Mitchell, an AFE technician who supports the 559th Flying Training Squadron.
As yet another maintenance unit with over 100 years’ experience between the technicians, the AFE shop’s defensive line is built to last.
Upon arriving to the squadron, pilots are personally fitted for gear and instructed on the proper use of all equipment they take in the air. If even the smallest discrepancy is found in a routine inspection or upon donning the gear for a sortie, the equipment is immediately replaced and repaired.
As with the egress shop, the responsibility to ensure pilots return safely is always on the minds of the technicians.
“There’s a level of trust and respect there, because we maintain gear that will save their lives in the event something goes wrong,” Mitchell said.
Every piece of equipment they touch could be used in an emergency and potentially save a life.
“I know if someone hadn’t done their job the right way, I might not be here right now,” said Donato.
Day in and day out, the benchmark for a successful mission remains constant.
“The pilots are counting on us to do our jobs,” said Edward Scribner, an AFE technician who supports the 559th FTS. “All we want to see is them walk back through that door.”
Glenn and Donato had never met prior to their sortie, but will always remember the life-changing experience they shared in the skies over south Texas. As aviators and as men, they could not have been a more unique pairing.
Glenn has the touches of grey and cool demeanor of a seasoned pilot, but manages to retain that youthful spark in his eye as he talks of life above the clouds. He has an air of nostalgia about him, grateful for the opportunity to pass along his 18 years of experience to the next generation of American aviators as he approaches retirement.
Donato, with a hint of a New York accent, speaks deliberately, barely containing the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a freshly winged pilot ready to make his mark. He’s focused, determined and his level of preparation is apparent as he speaks about his experiences as a young aviator.
While both pilots would say it was their training that best prepared them for the events that day, the instruction has certainly changed in the last 18 years.
Donato represents the “new school” at Air Education and Training Command, with clear, concise lessons on proper procedures augmented by hands-on application, effective but constrained by budgetary concerns and the speed of the content delivery.
“The ejection was my first-time riding on a parachute,” said Donato.
Glenn’s training was decidedly more “old school.”
“You were literally drug behind a truck with a parachute attached to you,” said Glenn. “If you tripped and fell, it didn’t matter, they were gonna keep going until the ‘chute filled with air and you lifted off the ground.”
It was trial by fire, with the hopes of searing good habits into the minds of the young aviators.
“We were behind the truck until we got a good amount of altitude, then it would stop and we’d come crashing down,” said Glenn. “As we’re coming down, our instructors would be yelling at us what to do and how to prepare for the parachute landing fall.”
The school of hard knocks method paid dividends as Glenn egressed from his T-6.
“All that sort of stuff came racing back into my memory, the few seconds I was under the ‘chute,” said Glenn. “I can distinctly remember my instructors yelling from the ground, ‘Don’t anticipate, look at the horizon, don’t look at the ground.’”
Even with expertly maintained equipment and advanced training, the decision to abandon the aircraft is never easy. In popular culture, military pilots have long been portrayed as completely detached from the emotional stress of tactical situations however, it is important to realize there is still a human behind the controls.
“When it became clear that we could not make it back to Randolph, that’s when I had some fear come into my mind,” said Donato. “This was a normal sortie and now we’re going to have to eject, but once that reality became apparent, I was intent to perform the ejection sequence as correctly as I could.”
Piloting a high-performance aircraft does not require a complete absence of emotion, but a controlled response to extremely mentally and physically stressful situations.
“Leading up to the ejection, there was a period of ‘Oh No,’” said Glenn. “Then there was maybe a second or two to analyze the situation and take proper action.”
The countless hours of training sorties, simulator time, drilling emergency procedures, and studying flight manuals all come together in a matter of seconds.
“In this particular case, I realized there was a problem, saw what my options were, elected to put the aircraft in a position where it wouldn’t harm anyone and followed the mental checklist that we’ve been trained to execute,” said Glenn.
Across the U.S. Air Force, there are maintenance technicians and instructor pilots who come to work every day with the sole purpose of making sure a pilot’s worst day is not his or her last. And it is in the wake of these events that Airmen across the Air Force pause to accept their own mortality and just how much every Airman depends on those who stand ready to support them, especially in the direst of circumstances.
“I have a much better appreciation for all the personnel who support us as aviators,” said Donato.
As a student pilot inundated with a sea of technical data and procedures, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture your sorties fit into. This sortie included an impactful lesson of just how important the total force team is to a successful mission.
After their experience, both pilots sought out the 12th OSS’s maintenance professionals who directly touched the equipment they used during their emergency egress. They immediately walked up and “hugged their necks,” as Glenn likes to say, and gave their heartfelt thanks for another chance at life.
The pilots then publicly recognized both the 12th OSS egress and aircrew flight equipment shops and presented them a plaque for their dedication to the mission of the 12th Flying Training Wing.
“The egress shop, I had never met them before. I couldn’t tell you who they were, couldn’t pick them out of a lineup, but I relied on them to save my life that day,” said Glenn.
September 18th, 2018 is a date Lt. Col. Lee Glenn, 1st Lt. Nick Donato, and these maintainers will not soon forget, especially the moment at which both pilots walked back through the door.
Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the Joint Base San Antonio website.