Two thousand feet up and flying over the forests of Alpena County, Capt. Brett DeVries was running through his mental checklist and most of the options were bad. With his wingman flying just feet away and an Air Force maintenance specialist patched in via a radio set up next to a speaker phone, DeVries made the decision to land his badly-damaged A-10 Thunderbolt II on the runway at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
Despite the fact that his landing gear wouldn’t come down. And the canopy had blown off the aircraft 25 minutes before. And his main radio stopped working. Along with the first back-up.
There’s an old saying in the Air Force: Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.
In this case, DeVries expeditiously exited the aircraft - gulping deep breathes until he was certain there would be no explosion. But yes, it was a very good landing.
DeVries made the landing on the afternoon of July 20 at the Alpena Center, which shares a runway with the Alpena County Airport in northeast Michigan. It is believed to be the first time in the roughly 40-year history of the A-10 that a pilot had to land with no canopy and with the landing gear up. While the aircraft sustained heavy damage, the pilot, his wingman and all the people on the ground were unharmed when the drama came to an end.
“To this day, I really haven’t second guessed anything,” said DeVries, leaning forward in a chair in a side office at the 107th Fighter Squadron operations building at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, where he has been flying A-10s with the Michigan Air National Guard for the past seven years. “In that moment, your training kicks in. The training - that’s what saves you and your wingman.”
It started off as a routine training flight from Selfridge to the Grayling Air Gunnery Range on a clear-sky Thursday afternoon in July. Four A-10s were headed up to make the 30-minute flight to Grayling, to drop dummy bombs and make several strafing passes with the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Gatling-style gun that protrudes from the nose of the A-10.
For DeVries and his peers in the 107th, known as the “Red Devils,” flights up to Grayling in northern Michigan are routine affairs - comparable to another day of batting practice for baseball players. DeVries estimates that he’s flown training missions over Grayling some 300 times – training missions that came in handy during his 119 combat missions flown overseas. And training that can come in handy on a sunny afternoon in northern Michigan when a routine flight turns anything but.
The four aircraft made six bomb passes over the gunnery range, dropping their ordinance. Then each took a turn firing the 30mm gun. Everything was just as expected - just another day of batting practice.
But on his second pass, DeVries’ gun malfunctioned. Simultaneously, the canopy of his aircraft blew off. With the canopy off and flying at about 325 knots, the wind caught in his helmet and slammed DeVries’ head back into the seat.
“It was like someone sucker punched me,” he said. “I was just dazed for a moment.”
At the time, he was flying at about 150 feet. The Airman instinctively pulled back on his stick to gain altitude. Climbing up to 2,000 feet to put some space between his aircraft and the ground.
Flying behind DeVries was Major Shannon Vickers, another 107th pilot. He saw a “donut of gas” from the gun around Devries’ aircraft, but didn’t see the canopy blow off. Vickers was making his own strafing pass and was focused on the targets at the range. The first indication for Vickers that something was wrong was when DeVries climbed to altitude out of the normal path for range traffic.
Inside his cockpit, DeVries operated on instinct drummed into him from those past training missions. First, he lowered the seat in the cockpit - with no canopy, he needed to sit lower to try to escape the winds that were buffeting his head back and forth. With a lower seat and his head down, he was able to escape the worst of the wind. The wind also meant that his maps and checklists were blowing all around.
“There was paper everywhere. And I was afraid to open up my emergency checklist, because I knew that would just blow away and maybe get sucked in to an engine,” DeVries recalled.
Another issue as the pilot assessed the emergency: had the blown canopy in any way compromised the integrity of the ejection seat? If DeVries pulled the handles, would the ejection system fail - or worse, operate only partially, leaving him halfway in and halfway out of the Warthog?
With DeVries getting his aircraft under control, Vickers flew under him, performing a visual inspection of the damaged aircraft. When the gun malfunctioned, it blew several covers off the bottom of the A-10. The two pilots quickly conferred, with DeVries making it clear that while Vickers’ opinions were highly valued, DeVries would be making the final call about ejecting or trying to land.
“I didn’t want him to feel like he would be in a position where he told me to do something and it didn’t work. I wanted his full, honest input,” DeVries said.
In addition to having been an A-10 pilot for the past 10 years, Vickers brought a little extra knowledge to the table. The Michigan native started his military career as an enlisted weapons specialist, working on A-10s at the 110th Attack Wing in Battle Creek.
Quickly, the two Red Devils determined the best course of action would be to fly over to Alpena, just a few minutes away by air, and attempt a landing there. While flying there, the Alpena control tower called down to Selfridge, some 250 miles to the south, in metropolitan Detroit. Soon, several A-10 maintenance specialists were on a speaker phone, chiming in with their ideas and recommendations, which Alpena then relayed to Vickers and DeVries, who was now down to using his third-best radio system.
For seemingly long minutes, they debated about DeVries attempting to lower his landing gear. Landing a plane with the gear down is good. Landing with it up is not ideal. Landing with some of it up and some of it down, well, those stories seldom end well.
Finally, with Vickers flying little more than an arm’s length away underneath DeVries, the pilot of the damaged Warthog tried to lower his landing gear. Two things were in Vickers mind at the time - needing to sound off immediately if there was any problem with the gear as it began to lower and the very real concern that some loose or broken part might fall off DeVries’ plane and damage Vickers’.
DeVries reached forward and grabbed the lever affixed with a clear plastic stroller wheel in the cockpit of his damaged bird. He pushed it down. And the gear started to come down, but, as they feared, the nose gear was hung up from the gun damage.
Quickly, Vickers shouted into the radio - “Gear up!” Fortunately, the gear all returned to the up position.
“I just thought, ‘There is no way this is happening right now.’ It all was sort of surreal, but at the same time, we were 100 percent focused on the task ahead of us,” Vickers said.
And so, with gear up and the canopy off DeVries lined it up for a landing.
“As he made final approach, I felt confident he was making the right decision,” Vickers said. “We had talked through every possibility and now he was going to land it.”
Shallow approach. Not too fast. Minimal flare.
On the A-10, the two main landing gear wheels are exposed, even when in the up position. It is part of the combat resiliency of the aircraft. And so, Capt. Brett DeVries landing his ‘Hog, right in the middle of the runway in a near textbook landing - caught on video by another pilot who was on the ground at Alpena.
“I flew him down, calling out his altitude,” Vickers said. “He came in flat, I mean it was a very smooth landing.”
“Capt. DeVries skills as a pilot were put to the test in this incident,” said Brig. Gen. John D. Slocum, the 127th Wing commander and himself a seasoned fighter pilot. “He demonstrated not only superior skill as a pilot but remained calm in an extremely challenging situation. To walk away from this scenario with no injuries is a true testament to his abilities as a world-class fighter pilot.”
After watching DeVries land, Vickers was directed to return to home station at Selfridge.
“That’s probably only a 35-minute flight, but it just felt like hours,” Vickers said.
After flying alongside DeVries during the landing, Vickers circled the field and saw his fellow Red Devil exit the aircraft on his own and run to the fire truck.
“And I am thinking, did this just happen? That was the longest flight ever back, to Selfridge,” he said.
“There is a reason why we train as a two-ship or greater,” said Col. Shawn Holtz, Commander of the 127th Operations Group and an A-10 pilot. “We rely on each other and need to have mutual support within the flight. Maj. Vickers was the definition of what a Wingman should be in this flight. He stuck with Capt. Devries and did everything in his power to see this through to a safe landing. Both of these pilots demonstrated not only superior flying skills, but represent the type of teamwork and professionalism that should be the goal of every Attack Pilot.”
In all, the flight lasted about 25 minutes from the time the canopy blew off until landing, though it felt longer to the two pilots in the air. An investigation is underway into the cause of the original malfunction. Thanks to DeVries’ skills in landing the aircraft, the damaged Warthog is expected to be able to eventually be returned to flying status. As for his fellow Airmen, the 107th as a whole stood down from flying for several days, but have since returned to regular flight ops.
Slocum said the two men will be submitted for appropriate recognition for their superior Airmanship during the July 20 flight. DeVries also received an email congratulating him from Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff.
“Again, I want to stress the training,” DeVries said. “Sometimes, perhaps we think, ‘Why do we have to do this training again and again?’ Well, in this case, the training took over and it is what made the difference.”
The A-10 is still at Alpena where it is being repaired and will return to the flying inventory at Selfridge.