On 8 April 1982, the following crew conversation takes place inside Fango 43, an Idaho ANG RF-4C flying a twilight low-level radar mission over eastern Oregon.
PILOT: “Ground speed set at 480.”
WSO: “Okay, turn right to two-zero-three.”
PILOT: “Steady two-zero-three.”
WSO: “Okay, come one-half left and hold that.”
WSO: “Clear your clock. After we hack, turn left two-zero-three and hold that ‘till we cross the target. Ready, ready—Hack!”
PILOT: “My clock’s runnin’; I’m turning to two-zero-three…okay; steady on!”
WSO: “We’ll cross the target at fifty-two seconds. Then climb straight ahead to 7,300’, switch to TAO, make a 45-degree-bank left turn to one-eight-five.”
PILOT: “Okay …. There’s forty-five seconds ….”
WSO: “The IR’s comin’ on. ‘We should be over the target right now…. Okay, now start your climb to 7,300’ and switch to ….”
(RADIO CALL ON DISTRESS CHANNEL) “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MADAY! FANGO 45, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. 150 MILES WEST OF BOISE HAS A BIRDSTRIKE. MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!”
PILOT: “Mike, that’s Fred, and he’s in big trouble! Let’s abandon this low-level, and I’m headin’ over that way right now; ‘coming to a 220 heading.”
Fango 43 was about 20 miles east of Fango 45, and their new southwesterly heading would quickly put them close to Fango 45 who indeed needed help. They radioed Salt Lake Center to get radar help locating the distressed Fango 45 and aiding a rapid joinup.
FANGO 43: “Salt Lake Center, Fango 43; 100 northwest of Boise.”
SALT LAKE: “Fango 43, Salt Lake, go ahead.”
FANGO 43: “We just heard a Mayday from Fango 45, he’s about 150 west of Boise; reported a birdstrike. Can you see him and vector us over there to join up? He really needs our help.”
SALT LAKE: “Fango 43, squawk ident. Radar contact 105 west of Boise.”
FANGO 43: “Roger. He’s probably heading toward Boise; ‘should be around 250 knots.”
SALT LAKE: “Okay Fango 43, I’ve got a 4300 squawk in that vicinity, bearing two-zero-zero for 21.”
FANGO 43: “Okay, that should be him; thanks. When we join up, we’ll keep you advised.”
Fango 45 had also been flying a low-level mission, traveling at 480 knots groundspeed in a low-level training corridor. They needed help indeed, for they’d struck a 20-pound Tundra Swan (Cygnus Columbianis), in their left windscreen, shattering it and incapacitating pilot Capt. Greg Engelbreit. The rear-seat crewmember (WSO) was Lt. Fred Wilson, who was now in control of the aircraft. The RF-4C had only partial rear-seat controls—stick, rudders, throttles, speed brakes–and only limited provision for establishing landing configuration, visibility to land, and braking the aircraft. Relying on his training, even in his blinded, injured, and semiconscious state, Engelbreit had properly configured Fango 45 for landing—extending landing gear, flaps, and arresting hook. Wilson’s problems were lessened by Engelbreit’s actions; however, he still faced numerous and severe problems due to an incapacitated pilot, air blasting into the cockpit at nearly 250 knots, and no forward visibility due to windscreen damage and blood and bird parts covering the canopy. Also, twilight was gathering and the landing destination was still 20 minutes away.
PILOT: “Salt Lake, Fango 43’s got a visual on a beacon; our 1:30 position about 8 miles.”
SALT LAKE: “Roger, Fango 43, that should be the other Fango.”
PILOT: “Thanks Salt Lake, we’re joining up on him now and we’ll advise if we need any more help.”
WSO: “Let’s try to raise Fred on the radio, I’m switching us over to Guard (243.0 mhz)…… okay, now see if he can hear us.”
Fango 43 executed a rapid joinup, and their crew now saw Engelbreit’s status: slouched forward, chin on chest, with major damage to his ejection seat linkages and parachute container, which rendered his ejection system unusable. They made radio contact with Wilson and learned that he had limited visibility through his blood-smeared canopy. Forward visibility was nonexistent due to windblast and windshield/canopy obscuration, but Wilson had enough lateral visibility to maintain formation with Fango 43. Fango 43’s crew knew immediately what they must do, and instructed Wilson to fly formation on them through a landing and approach-end cable arrestment at Mountain Home AFB (MHAFB). Wilson agreed, and from that moment on his central task was to fly good formation on Fango 43.
FANGO 43 to Fango 45: “Here’s the plan, Fred, as we’ve briefed before: we’ll bring you in for a straight-in approach-end arrestment at Mountain Home. We’ll have everything coordinated and it will be all set up. You just hang with us like you’re now doing. ‘You okay with our plan?”
FANGO 45: “I’m with you Bill.”
FANGO 43: “Okay then, we’ll take it nice and easy. You just keep flyin’ that good position you’ve got and we’ll bring you in. In the event your hook doesn’t catch the cable, I’ll gradually advance the power–you stay with me–and we’ll make a go-around, and come back around for another try. Nice and easy; no sudden moves. All right?”
FANGO 45: “Roger.”
Fango 43 contacted their squadron Supervisor of Flying (SOF) at Boise, explained their plan, and requested that he contact MHAFB’s SOF to advise and brief him on their plan and its complications. As the two Fangos neared MHAFB, they contacted MHAFB Approach Control and requested a ‘single-frequency approach’, a separate radio frequency exclusively for their use. The squadron SOF continued to monitor the Fangoes’ radio transmissions, and supplied further information about the nature of the emergency to the MHAFB SOF. By this time the flight is 20 miles southwest of MHAFB, and the lights of the base are now visible.
PILOT: “Fred’s hanging in there just great. ‘Anything we’ve forgotten?”
WSO: “No, we’ve gone through all the normal and emergency checklists, and we’re all set. I sure hope he stays in there, it’s getting’ pretty dark out here.”
PILOT: “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll put nav lights on ‘dim-steady’.”
FANGO 43: “How ya doin’, Fred?”
FANGO 45: “I’m okay”.
FANGO 43: “Okay, relax if you can! We’ll fly a long straight-in approach to Three-Zero and it will work out fine.”
The flight has proceeded at 220 Knots indicated airspeed with landing gear down, and now turns onto a left base leg for Runway 30 as the evening light fades completely. The weather is perfect, and the Fango 43 crew continues discussing what-ifs and reviewing their procedures. The single-frequency approach has eased Wilson’s workload by eliminating radio channel switching and having to listen to other radio receptions that might break his and his flight lead’s concentration. Approach Control turns them to a ten-mile final and the flight rolls out on the ILS. Fango 43 requests ‘radar monitoring’ of their ILS approach, with no further radio calls needed except a landing clearance.
FANGO 43: “Okay Fred, you’re lookin’ good; we’re all lined up. Just hang in there and we’ll have you down.”
FANGO 45: “Okay.”
PILOT: “Everything’s set, Mike, keep an eye on him; I’m concentratin’ on this approach; speed’s now set on 185.”
WSO: “Roger that, he’s holding good.”
APPROACH CONTROL: “Fango 43, cleared to land, the emergency equipment is standing by.”
FANGO 43: “Rawj; gear down; Fred check three green.”
FANGO 45: “Fango 45; gear down.”
FANGO 43: “Fango 45, you’re lookin’ good.“
As the formation arrives over the threshold, formation position, speed, alignment and descent are perfect for a touchdown 500’ before the arresting cable. Touchdown occurs right on target and the two Fangos’ noses drop to the runway just as their wheels roll over the cable. Immediately the Fango 43 crew sees Fango 45 quickly decelerating, sliding back, signalling a good arrestment.
PILOT: “Beautiful! Man what a sight!”
WSO: “Yeah, he’s caught the cable.”
FANGO 43: “Okay, Fred; you’re on your own! Approach, Fango 43 is touch and go, request clearance back to Boise at seven thousand.”
FANGO 45: “Thanks for your help, guys!”
APPROACH CONTROL: “Fango 43, climb to seven thousand, squawk 4415, contact Boise Approach on 269.4.”
FANGO 43: “Roger, seven thousand, and Boise on 269.4. Great work Fred.”
PILOT: Man, I’m exhausted!
WSO: Me too; I hope they’re okay.
The successful approach-end arrestment, even though perfectly executed, was not the end of the challenges. Rescue from the stopped aircraft wasn’t simple because engine shutdown wasn’t available to Wilson from the back seat, requiring someone to gain access to the front cockpit to stop the engines. None other than the Mountain Home AFB Wing Commander was on scene and took on the task. Climbing up on the left intake and reaching into the front cockpit and stop-cocking the engines was Wing Commander Col Coleman, assisted by TSgt Gardner, who held Coleman by his belt, steadying him atop his precarious perch. With engine shutdown and extrication complete, Engelbreit was then taken immediately to MHAFB hospital, and later transported to Boise’s St. Alphonsus Hospital.
This recovery of an aircraft and crew definitely saved Engelbreit’s life. Wilson had the option of ejecting himself safely from the damaged aircraft, but such an ejection would have been fatal for Engelbreit. All four ANG crewmembers were decorated for their exemplary flying skill demonstrated during the rescue.
After several months Engelbreit began recovering from his injuries, later regaining partial use of his left shoulder, but unfortunately, never sufficient to re-attain flying status. However, the rescue was an unqualified success. Sadly, fifteen years later, Engelbreit succumbed to Cruzfeld-Jacob Disease. The crew of Fango 43, pilot William C. Miller and WSO Michael McGrath, and Fango 45 WSO Fred Wilson, all have retired from the Idaho Air Guard and live in Boise.
By William C. Miller, with Frederic G. Wilson and Michael P. McGrath, 9 January 2010