Three pilots received the Armed Forces Air Medal for saving their E-2C Hawkeye after an arresting cable snap sent it plummeting off the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Browning, Lt. Cmdr. Kellen Smith and Lt. Matthew Halliwell with Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123 were presented the award that recognizes heroic actions and meritorious service while flying for recovering their Hawkeye from an unexpected plunge off the Ike’s deck.
“It all happened in about eight seconds,” said Smith, according to a press release from the Ike. “While we were decelerating we heard a loud snap. When we would normally be coming to a stop, we weren’t. Our years of training kicked in and we reacted on instinct. I slapped back the ditching hatch (Hawkeyes do not have ejection seats) as we cleared the deck and began a deep settle (significant descent). I would guess we were about 10 feet from the water before we lifted back up, but Lt. Smith expertly kept us climbing away. It was a sigh of relief when we were back in the air. It helps to know that at the critical moment, all we practice for this scenario actually works. The experience has made me much more confident in my training.”
The pilots were finishing up a round of carrier landing qualifications in preparation for their deployment on the afternoon of March 18 when the plane hit the fourth landing cable on Ike’s flight deck, dragging the 1 1/12-inch wire down the runway before it snapped and they plunged off the side.
“The flight back to Norfolk afterwards was long,” Smith said. “Once we realized the plane was fine, we started to think about the people back on the ship. The Screwtops are a tight-knit family and the pilots are close to our maintainers. We knew some had been hurt and it was a relief to learn those injured were being taken care of.”
Though the aircrew were fine, the scene back on the flight deck was chaos. Two Ike sailors and six VAW-123 maintainers were hit by the cable as it whipped across the flight deck. Six were medically evacuated from the ship and treated for injuries ranging from a sprained ankle to broken limbs, a fractured skull, a broken pelvis, torn ligaments and a collapsed artery that almost cost one mechanic his leg.
A command investigation laid the blame with an improperly programmed No. 4 cable, which had thrown an error code earlier in the day. Three sailors in the arresting gear were disciplined for improperly troubleshooting the code, according to the investigation, which caused it to let out too much wire and fail to absorb the force of the landing Hawkeye.
The report also called out convoluted arresting gear maintenance procedures, ordering a simplified process to prevent similar accidents in the future.