What could have been a sortie with disastrous consequences was averted the morning of June 29 by a weapon systems officer and student pilot from the 435th Fighter Training Squadron who were practicing bombing deliveries at a range south of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
The crew, relying on their training and keeping their cool, overcame the failure of one of their T-38C’s engines to guide the aircraft to an airfield some 20 miles away for a safe landing.
For their heads-up actions that early summer morning, Capt. Joshua Smith, 435th FTS flight commander and WSO, and 1st Lt. Spencer Rhoton, now assigned to the 310th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, are nominees for an Air Education and Training Command safety award.
For Smith, it was just another day in the sky.
“It is an honor and surprise to be nominated because I feel we did nothing beyond what any other trained aircrew would have accomplished,” he said. “We were able to maintain composure due to appropriate prior planning, training and crew coordination.”
Rhoton also called the nomination an honor and, like Smith, attributed their handling of the situation to preparedness.
“When the engine failed I immediately fell back onto the priorities that are ingrained in pilots from day one of pilot training, and that is to keep proper control over the aircraft, figure out what the issue is at hand, take the proper steps to correct that issue and get the aircraft back on a suitable piece of pavement,” he said.
The crew had just turned their aircraft around after a practice delivery when the right engine shut down, Smith said.
“Three other aircraft were near us, so we had to maintain power to stay at the right altitude,” he said. “There was no airfield there, but we had to land as soon as possible because it was an emergency situation.”
Preparing for situations such as engine failures is an important part of pilot training, so Smith and Rhoton relied on the knowledge obtained in simulators and briefings – including the use of equipment checklists – to address the problem.
“Having had extensive emergency procedures training helped tremendously,” Rhoton said. “Stepping through emergency situations mentally and verbally on the ground, practicing in the simulator and even simulating single-engine operations in the jet to get a feel for changes in flight characteristics are all part of our training regime.”
There are several possible consequences of engine failure, Smith said.
“You can lose some of the electrical system,” he said. “You don’t have as much thrust, so it takes more work to maintain flying altitude. You can also lose the ability to lower the aircraft’s flaps or landing gear.”
Accompanied by another aircraft in the 435th FTS fleet, Smith and Rhoton turned their T-38C toward the nearest airfield and executed a successful landing.
“These are things we practice, but they don’t happen very often,” Smith said. “The way we prepare is exactly what happened.”
Neither crew member had experienced engine failure.
“I’ve never had an engine fail, but the fact that I had seen other emergencies enabled me to remain calm,” Smith said.
Lt. Col. Jason Earley, 435th FTS commander, commended the actions of Smith and Rhoton. He said Smith, who has weapons systems officer training, has expanded his role beyond what is expected of a WSO.
“It took an extra level of airmanship to get that aircraft on the ground,” he said, noting that Smith and Rhoton had to execute a low-altitude flight and go to an unfamiliar airfield in a remote area.
Simulators involved in training are similar to what happens in real life, Earley said, but pilots have to contend with the “shock and awe” that accompanies an actual emergency.
“The biggest danger is that when an engine fails, the aircraft loses more than 50 percent of its performance capability,” he said. “You have to understand what the situation is and act quickly.”