Navy Pilots Awarded Medal For Saving Plane

Persian Gulf – Three pilots assigned to the “Screwtops” of Airborne Early Warning (VAW) Squadron 123 were awarded the Armed Forces’ Air Medal for valor aboard aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) following a flight deck mishap March 18.

Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Browning, Lt. Cmdr. Kellen Smith and Lt. Matthew Halliwell were presented the award for reacting in time to prevent the loss of an aircraft by maintaining positive control during the mishap.

The award is presented for heroic actions or meritorious service while participating in aerial flight.

“I’d like to thank the Ike Strike Group family for their support and my fiancee back home, but most importantly I’d like to thank the folks who were there with me on that day,” said Smith, aircraft commander that day and co-pilot of the E2-C Hawkeye at the time of the mishap. “It’s a good thing to award those who execute training and execute our procedures to a ‘T,’ so we can carry the lesson forward and pass it on to other crews.”

Smith described the events of March 18, a day that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“We had clear skies and a smooth takeoff, and it seemed like another good day to fly,” said Smith, who earlier that day had piloted the aircraft to complete his own arrested landing during the Ike Strike Group Composite Training Unit Exercise. “We finished what we had to do in the air and were relieved to be landing back on board.”

With Halliwell in the pilot’s seat, the Hawkeye touched down on the flight deck and caught the wire. As they began to decelerate, the arresting cable snapped and they found themselves rolling ever closer to the edge of the landing area.

“It all happened in about eight seconds,” said Smith, who has been flying for 12 years. “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 Screwtops’ Executive Officer, Cmdr. Darryl Martin, stated the decoration was more about showing appreciation for the training the pilots received throughout their careers than for what they did to save the aircraft.

“Due to their years of practice and trust in vetted procedures, the crew was able to develop skills and survive the dangerous situation they were presented,” Martin said. “If the right lessons were not captured from the past or if the crew had not paid attention to them, they would not be here today. I am humbly grateful for their proven professionalism, resilience, and respect for the dangerous environment in which we find ourselves daily.”

Smith stressed as grateful as he and his crew mates were to have regained the air after coming so close to the water, he immediately began to think about those on the flight deck who may not have walked away unscathed.

“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.”

Four months after that day, Halliwell has moved on to be an instructor for up-and-coming Hawkeye pilots. Smith and Browning are still flying with the Screwtops.

Smith said there was never a doubt he would be behind the controls again.

“It takes a lot of resolve and focus to fly again after something like this happens, but the Navy has trained us well and I’m more confident than ever I will know what to do in any given situation,” said Smith.

VAW-123 is assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 3, embarked aboard aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69)(Ike). Ike and its carrier strike group are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.

Image Credits: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch/Released