SOUTHWEST ASIA --
Four Airmen assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron were awarded Air Force Commendation Medals during a ceremony here, Feb. 16.
Air Force Commendation Medals are awarded to armed services personnel who distinguish themselves by meritorious achievement and service while serving in any capacity with the Air Force.
Senior Airmen Nash Camden, Blake Destasio, Matthew Mayo and Tech. Sgt. Kyle Martin received the medals for their efforts Dec. 2, 2015 when they, along with five other maintainers, responded to a fire caused by a hydraulic fluid leak on an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter after it returned to base.
It started out as a normal day, according to the maintainers and aircrew involved in the incident.
“It was morning time and we had just returned from a night mission. Everything was going normal,” said Maj. Michael, a 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron weapon systems officer. “As we leave the de-arm area, we get a sharp salute from the crew chief, and we normally start taxiing to our parking spot at that point.”
At this time, nearby maintainers reported hearing a loud, screeching noise from the direction of the F-15 as the aircrew began to head to their parking spot.
The aircraft’s right brake bleed port had broken when the aircrew applied the brakes while taxiing, resulting in a shower of hydraulic fluid covering the aircraft’s hot brakes, which were soon engulfed in flames.
“As soon as I looked back there was a ball of fire under the jet so I ran over,” said Senior Airman Camden, a 380th EAMXS weapons load crew member.
Camden’s immediate concern was the 3,000 pounds of ordinance being exposed to the fireball suddenly engulfing the aircraft’s underside and immediately began spraying the aircraft with halon from a nearby fire bottle.
Halon is chemical compound that acts as a fire suppressant by interfering with the oxidation process between fuel and oxygen, consuming a fire’s oxygen supply. The gas’s reaction also makes it potentially hazardous to people as it may deflate the lungs if inhaled.
“As a weapons troop we learn a lot about how long it takes a piece of ordnance to explode once it’s enveloped in flames so my number one priority was putting out the fire,” he said.
The maintainers put out the initial fire, but were unable to stop the aircraft from rolling forward as its still active thrusters merely propelled it over chocks - wedges used to prevent aircraft wheels from moving.
In a further attempt to stop the aircraft rolling forward the aircrew hit the emergency brakes.
What the aircrew didn’t know at the time was hitting the emergency brakes caused hydraulic fluid from the emergency reservoir to flow through the now broken port and spray onto the hot brakes again, reigniting the fire.
Destasio, realizing the threat the renewed fire and tires covered in hydraulic fuel posed, instructed those fighting the fire to move to a safer position in case of a high-pressure tire rupture.
“It could explode and literally cut you in half,” he said.
Meanwhile the aircrew, realizing they had no brakes and thus no way stop the aircraft from moving, shut off the engines to stop the thrusters.
“After we shut the engines off we started to roll backwards because of the slight incline and there’s no more thrust coming from the engines,” said Michael. “As we start to roll backwards we feel the crew chiefs throwing the chocks under the tires and we feel a little bump because we have momentum going backwards, and we’re rolling over the chocks.”
From there things literally took a turn for the worst.
The blazing, ordnance loaded aircraft begins rolling backwards uncontrollably across a hydraulic fluid soaked flightline, its course veering in the direction of a parked coalition aircraft.
“At that point I’m thinking, ‘Well I’ve been on fire before, that wasn’t a big deal, but now we have no brakes and we’re rolling backwards, possibly into this jet behind us. That’s going to be a pretty big deal,” he said. “That’s when I unstrapped and I’m sitting in my seat getting ready to jump outside of the jet.”
Maintainers tossed ladders and chocks behind the F-15’s rear wheels as fast as they could, finally slowing it down enough for Destasio to place a chock behind the F-15’s nose landing gear, successfully stopping it.
As Michael disembarked the aircraft one of the crew chiefs grabbed him to make sure he didn’t fall and told him he was glad he was safe.
“It just shows they were willing to risk their lives to go out there to prevent jets from colliding, preventing possible explosions and helping save our lives.”
In addition to the medals and other accolades, the maintainer’s efforts garnered them the AFCENT Ground Safety Award of Distinction for February 2016.
“These Airmen went above and beyond on Dec. 2 and placed themselves in harm’s way to save the aircrew,” said Lt. Col. Joel, 391st EFS commander. “If you ever ask them about it they’ll probably tell you they were just doing their job, but never forget that sometimes just doing your job in the Air Force requires you to be a hero.”
(Due to safety and security concerns some last names were removed.)