Flight engineers prove always ready, win AFRC safety award

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dylan Gentile
  • 919th Special Operations Wing

Pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight checklists are routine for every aviation career field. Aircrews from the 919th Special Operations Wing and 492nd Special Operations Wing go through significant training just to run the checklists and know to respond regardless of the emergency. For one crew aboard a MC-130H Combat Talon II, these standard flight checklist procedures meant the difference between a safe landing and a potentially fatal outcome.

On Jan. 18, 2022, a regularly scheduled training flight left Hurlburt Field. It wasn’t until later that night the crew discovered a minor hydraulic leak and decided to make their way home. Senior Master Sgt. John Gabel, 5th Special Operations Squadron flight engineer, and Master Sgt. Frank Veres, 492nd Special Operations Training Support Squadron flight engineer, both played critical roles in ensuring the safety of their wingmen that evening. 

The incident began once the Combat Talon ascended to a safe altitude and was on track back to Hurlburt Field when Gabel heard a popping sound. Moments later, the cabin filled with smoke and the crew all donned their oxygen masks.

“Flames started pouring out of the electrical access panel,” said Gabel. “Smoke cascaded onto the flight deck, and I was trying to get my bearings when I thought to myself, you got to do something. The interior of the Talon was pitch black.”

The electrical distribution panel caught on fire, and without power the only source of light was the glow of the flames. Unable to read the electrical fire checklist in the dark, Gabel, fortunate to have memorized the checklist, relied on his many years of training and began to run through the procedures.

“I was concerned that if I did something wrong, I could make the situation worse,” said Gabel. “I focused on performing the checklist. I was concerned for the loadmaster and my evaluator who were trying to fight the fire, and I just had to trust that they could manage it.”         

While Gabel was shutting down the electrical components and preventing the spread of the fire, Veres was in the rear of the aircraft busy with a fire extinguisher.

“The overall care of the crew became a huge emphasis right away,” said Veres. “That 25-28 minutes of fighting for our lives felt like an eternity.”

They were able to stop the spread of the fire, but smoke inside the Combat Talon made visibility abysmal.

“We couldn’t communicate with the loadmasters at the back of the aircraft, there was no visibility and no communications system,” said Veres. “I started flashing my flashlight and one of the more experienced loadmasters knew it meant to open the parachute doors, which let the smoke out pretty quick.”

Gabel kept battery power flowing to critical in-flight systems throughout the fire, however their navigation capabilities and communication became degraded. The navigator discovered they could use one of their I-pads and a Wi-Fi puck to navigate their way to an emergency landing airfield 20 nautical miles away. Gabel used the aircraft’s backup airspeed indicator and a flashlight to coordinate the landing with the pilots.

“It’s absolutely critical to understand your emergency procedures,” said Gabel. “Knowing the first steps by heart meant that critical seconds weren’t wasted.”

Ground crews came and provided critical assistance to the aircrew, who all emerged safely from the Combat Talon.

Gabel and Veres both returned home to their wives and children that night. Gabel went on to win the Air Force Reserve Command Safety Award for his fast-thinking and coordination that evening.

“I’m honored of course,” said Gabel. “However, if everyone on our crew hadn’t continued to do their job, I don’t think we would have made it.”

Training, checklists, and situational awareness ensured they went home to their families that day, said Veres. They are glad to be alive and grateful for the actions and preparedness of their wingmen.