DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
A C-5M Super Galaxy aircrew consisting of 9th Airlift Squadron and 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron personnel started on a mission Jan. 13, 2020, only to return to Dover 15 days later after encountering numerous challenges and an inflight medical emergency along the way.
The 12-strong REACH 190 aircrew consisted of the following members of the 9th AS: aircraft commander Capt. Geoffrey Howard and pilots 1st Lts. Douglas Gifford and Eli Parsch; flight engineers Tech. Sgt. Alexander Barnes and Staff Sgt. Emily O’Neil; loadmasters Master Sgt. Joshua Cutrer, Staff Sgt. Jesse Garza, Senior Airman Bret Noble, Airman 1st Class Joshua Johnson, Patrick Jones and Tylre Labreck. Staff Sgt. Teagan Young from the 436th AMXS was their flying crew chief. Together, they tackled an unscripted chain of events and challenges, which altered the length and itinerary of their extraordinary mission.
Communication and coordination among the aircrew as anomalies arose was critical to the success of this mission.
During the initial aircrew briefing prior to departing Dover, Howard emphasized the importance of safety and communication.
“Really, the two things that I preach and harp on in the initial aircrew brief is communication and crew resource management,” said Howard. “Those are the two biggest things about flying this airplane with three different crew positions [pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters] by all operating together in order to accomplish the same mission.”
The first leg of the mission took them to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where they would spend the first four and a half days on the ground before making an unscheduled return to Dover to fix an inoperative weather radar before continuing to their scheduled overseas location with 68 duty passengers and cargo.
“The weather radar was inoperative, which would’ve endangered the mission and the crew if the issue wasn’t corrected,” said Howard.
A few minutes into Jan. 18, 2020, the Super Galaxy had departed Barksdale and was heading back to Dover, ascending through an altitude of 18,000 feet above sea level, when a “PRESS DOOR OPEN” warning indication appeared simultaneously on the pilot’s, copilot’s and flight engineer’s Multifunctional Display Units, requiring the aircrew to level off at their current altitude.
“It’s a warning system, so we have to treat everything as a real problem,” said Barnes. “We suspected it was an indication problem only, but we had to follow procedures,” said Barnes.
Sitting at the flight engineer’s panel, Barnes determined the aircraft’s cabin air pressure was stable as the aircrew initiated the 1C-5M-1 or “Dash 1” checklist for a “Pressure Door Unlocked Indication” that directed the aircraft be descended below 10,000 feet to reduce the chances of hypoxia and ensure the safety of aircrew and passengers.
Shortly after initiating the checklist, an intercom call from the troop compartment notified the aircrew on the flight deck that one of the duty passengers was experiencing a seizure and had lost consciousness.
“We had one of the passengers come up, leave their seat and come forward to let us know what was going on,” said Cutrer.
With the help of others, Cutrer rendered aid to the stricken passenger while keeping Howard abreast of what was unfolding in the troop compartment.
“[My] initial assessment was that he [passenger] really wasn’t conscious,” said Cutrer. “We cleared the area around him, laid him down and made him comfortable as possible.”
Based on observation of the passenger, Cutrer recommended to Howard that he divert the Super Galaxy to the closest airport with a nearby 24/7 medical facility.
“Memphis International Airport, Tennessee, was right in front of us on our flight path; it was not too far away, and we were able to land in about 15 minutes,” said Howard. “Air Traffic Control helped us out greatly by providing us immediate vectors to Memphis International.”
Due to the weight of the aircraft [770,000 pounds] and the need for medical support, Howard made the decision to declare an inflight emergency and diverted the aircraft to Memphis, which has a runway more than 11,000 feet long, having served as a former C-5 base for the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 164th Airlift Wing.
Commenting on the teamwork of his aircrew and the successful outcome of the incident, Howard also said “Air Traffic Control was a big part of this by getting us a place to land immediately.”
After an uneventful landing, the stricken duty passenger was escorted off the aircraft under his own power and taken to a nearby medical facility by first responders for evaluation and treatment. Two and a half hours later, the Super Galaxy continued its journey back to Dover for needed maintenance prior to continuing on its overseas mission the next day.
“The character of our Airmen, the character of everyone onboard that evening – We performed admirably, and I’m proud of every single one of them,” said Howard. “Our training is exceptional, some of the best training in the entire world, if not the very best, and it certainly came together that evening. And teamwork – I can’t say or preach enough about teamwork.”
On the return leg of their 15-day mission, the aircrew had the honor of returning a fallen service member back to Dover and participating in the dignified transfer event.