RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Hitting a 4.5-pound vulture with the windscreen of a T-38C flying at 400 miles per hour is like getting a bowling ball tossed into your windshield while speeding in a sports car.
That big bird hit a T-38C flown by two Randolph Airmen, a 39th Flying Training Squadron instructor and his undergraduate instructor pilot operating at 500 feet above ground during an instructional sortie late last November. But that incident didn't stop them from landing their aircraft safely back at Randolph.
"Both pilots utilized outstanding ability, resourcefulness and expertise during two critical phases of flight to safely recover the aircraft," said Lt. Col. Jerry Byars, 39th FTS commander, who nominated the aircraft's instructor pilot, Maj. Tim Mangan, for an Air Education Training Command Safety Flight Individual Award of Distinction and his pupil, Capt. Brian Benton, for a 12th Flying Training Wing Flight Safety Well Done Award. "Major Mangan's and Captain Benton's outstanding crew operational risk management and their exceptional flying skill saved both themselves and the aircraft from a potentially catastrophic situation."
In November, Major Mangan and Captain Benton, call sign "Panfry 01," were flying a T-38C when their aircraft hit a vulture directly off the front lower windscreen. At the moment of impact, Major Mangan remained at the controls and executed a climbing turn toward Randolph Air Force Base.
The crew was 80 miles north of the base at the impact.
"I couldn't see anything out of the front," said the major, who was in the front seat.
After analyzing the damage and nature of the emergency, Major Mangan determined the best course of action was to return to Randolph at medium altitude, and to have a chase aircraft verify if damage to the aircraft warranted a controllability check before landing.
So the major coordinated with Houston Center air traffic controllers, controllers with San Antonio Approach, the Randolph supervisor of flying operations and the host squadron's flying supervisor during the return to Randolph. He passed on the nature of the emergency and coordinated a range of altitude that he could fly in while organizing the arrival of a chase aircraft which could check his aircraft for damage.
Prior to recovery, Major Mangan instructed Captain Benton that seeing the runway through the front windscreen would be impossible once established on final approach, and verified Captain Benton's forward visibility above the front canopy bow.
Next, Major Mangan coordinated on the plan to pass control of the aircraft to Captain Benton once properly aligned and configured for a simulated single engine landing with the runway in sight.
While approaching the field, the major coordinated for another T-38C -- a chase ship, call sign "Pack 01" - whose crew did a damage check at medium altitude over the entry point to the Randolph runway. Pack 01 determined the extent of the bird strike damage was limited to the top nose section and forward windscreen.
Major Mangan then coordinated for an extended final approach in order to configure and establish the aircraft above controlled bailout altitude-- with sufficient time to transfer aircraft control to Captain Benton.
Once properly configured, with the aircraft on glide path and cleared to land, Major Mangan then passed aircraft control to Captain Benton.
With the Randolph runway in sight, Captain Benton transitioned to a visual approach while Major Mangan monitored instrument parameters, like airspeed, glide path and runway alignment, until the aircraft touched down.
"Captain Benton executed an excellent transition from flare to touchdown during crosswind procedures," the major commented. "While he was doing that, I monitored the rate of descent and runway alignment out of the side windscreen."
Then the major took the controls after touchdown through rollout. He then opened the canopy at the end of the runway to increase visibility, cleared the runway and shut down the engines in front of emergency personnel.
A post-flight inspection revealed a lot of damage through the upper nose section of the aircraft as well as ingestion of bird remains down the number two engine and on the engine's bullet nose.
"With the size of the bird and speed at impact, I suspected the damage could be significant," he said.
Major Mangan said the safe recovery of the aircraft happened due to a team effort of professionals -Randolph tower controllers and the exceptional instructor training provided by the 435th Fighter Training Squadron. That unit helped train Captain Benton and provided the vital chase aircraft.
He added the safe recovery of the aircraft reflected upon how an aircrew trains on a daily basis.
"Up until the time we shut the engine down, we merely handled the emergency as we brief and train to do every day," the major concluded.