Cool under fire: Dover C-5 crew responds to flight challenges

An aircraft maintainer from the 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron blocks in the C-5M Super Galaxy dubbed Reach 190 at Dover Air Force Base. The aircrew, consisting of 9th Airlift Squadron and 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron personnel, returned to Dover 15 days after starting their mission after encountering numerous challenges and an in-flight medical emergency. United States Air Force photo/Roland Balik

DOVER — It was troubling enough when an indicator light lit up inside the cockpit of a C-5M Super Galaxy telling Capt. Geoff Howard, the pilot and aircraft commander, that one of the doors on the monstrous cargo airplane might have been open as he was ascending to 18,000 feet above the earth.

Not long after that loadmasters discovered that one of the 68 passengers aboard the plane bound from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to Dover Air Force Base was unconscious after suffering an apparent seizure about 20 minutes into the flight.

Suddenly, what was originally thought to be a routine mission for the air crew from the 9th Airlift Squadron at Dover Air Force Base — initially scheduled to travel from Louisiana to Rota Naval Air Station in Spain — became an emergency in the very early hours of Jan. 17.

The crew had already made the call to divert to Dover AFB due to some mechanical problems with the aircraft.

However, in hopes of getting medical attention quickly for their ailing passenger, who is a member of the Air Force, the decision was made to divert again, this time to Memphis International Airport in Tennessee.

It turned out to be all in a day’s work for the air crew, who had all received training, both medical and procedural, for emergency scenarios just like this one.

Had one of the doors been open on the C-5 in mid-flight it could have potentially caused structural damage and pressurization issues with the aircraft.

Through it all, Capt. Howard and the other 11 members of his crew kept calm heads and steady hands.

“Our initial actions were we leveled out at the altitude we were at and let air traffic control know that we were just going to level off momentarily, and in order to comply with the procedure we needed to descend to below 10,000 feet, depressurize the airplane and get one of the flight engineers on a harness so she could inspect all the doors leading out of the airplane and, hopefully, secure the situation,” Capt. Howard said.

“It was in the midst of all that, including descending below 10,000 feet, that we had the passenger experience the seizure and lost consciousness. From that point on, the issues of the aircraft were really put to the side and it was all about taking care of the passenger.”

Captain Geoff Howard, the aircraft commander of a Dover Air Force Base C-5M Super Galaxy that was diverted to Memphis International Airport on Jan. 17 due to a medical emergency, said it was a team effort that made everything go as smoothly as possible. Delaware State News/Mike Finney

The decision was made to land the plane at Memphis, which had previously been a National Guard base for C-5s. It had a long enough runway to safely land the aircraft, which at the time weighed 770,000 pounds, as well as provide 24/7 medical care for the passenger.
The C-5 landed about 20 minutes after the man suffered his medical issue and he was quickly tended to by awaiting first responders on the ground at Memphis.

Capt. Howard said he wasn’t sure if the passenger’s medical trouble was related to the airplane’s issue or when the plane had to descend.

“I can’t speak to that,” he said. “I’m not a medical doctor, so all I know is one incident happened shortly after the other.”

First Lt. Eli Parsch, the co-pilot, said it took a team effort from the crew to get through the challenges.

“This is very uncommon for us,” he said. “We fly with passengers a lot of times but it’s very unusual to have a passenger that has a medical issue while we’re in flight.

“As a pilot our responsibility is to fly the aircraft and help manage the crew. We’re lucky enough to have really experienced loadmasters back with the passengers that were able to assist the passenger.”

For most of the crew’s members, it marked the first time they had experienced a medical emergency mid-flight. Capt. Howard said he was proud of the way they responded.

“I’m extremely proud of every crew member on board. Our training is exceptional,” he said. “The character of everyone in the Air Force, especially the character of every single one of my crew members that evening, is exceptional. We train for this quite often and I know it sounds like a very complex and hectic flight, but we train for this and honestly it was very benign.

“Everyone was extremely calm and confident, the loadmasters were extremely calm, the flight engineers were extremely calm trying to assess the issue with the airplane. It was a team effort all the way around. I couldn’t have done it without every single person on board.”

Addressing the medical issue

Master Sgt. Josh Cutrer, serving as a load master/flight examiner, was the first airman to tend to the passenger after he suffered his medical issue. He said he was notified of the man’s condition by one of the other passengers on board not long after takeoff.

“We don’t normally plan to deal with medical emergencies for our passengers, but I initially responded and went back and tried to locate the (man) and he was unconscious and the two individuals who were sitting next to him were assisting him and helping out,” he said. “The biggest thing was to keep him safe. I kind of just cleared out the area.

“We had 67 passengers on board that day, so it’s a pretty full troop compartment. There’s really not a whole lot of room back there so I tried to do my best to clear out the aisleways and the seats that are next to them. I just tried to keep him stable, comfortable, laid back with his feet propped up.”

Master Sgt. Cutrer said that as the passenger regained consciousness he appeared to be dazed and couldn’t recall much before he passed out and said it was something that had never happened to him before.

From left, Capt. Geoff Howard, aircraft commander; Tech. Sgt. Alexander Barnes, flight engineer; Master Sgt. Joshua Cutrer, loadmaster; Staff Sgt. Teagan Young, 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief; and 1st Lt. Eli Parsch, pilot, all played key roles during an in-flight medical emergency aboard a C-5M Super Galaxy in January. United States Air Force photo/Roland Balik

“I asked him how he was feeling and if this was something that we needed to go back to Louisiana or if we should continue to fly,” he said. “He didn’t want to go back, he wanted to continue on, and it was at that point I indicated with Capt. Howard our options.”
It didn’t take the pilot long to find a spot where the man could receive quick medical attention.

“Thankfully we were stateside and we told air-traffic control what the issue was and we needed to land immediately with some place with 24/7 medical care, so they recommended Memphis International Airport in Tennessee and it was fortunately right off our nose, just a few miles ahead of us, so I knew we could land there immediately,” Capt. Howard said.

“We were extremely heavy, about 770,000 pounds when we were landing so we needed an extremely long runway and thankfully Memphis has that kind of capability for us and landed uneventfully.”

Air traffic controllers gave the C-5 crew emergency priority to land at Memphis as the airport was busy with aircraft from FedEx, which also uses the facility.

A juggling act

Tech. Sgt. Alexander Barnes, one of two flight engineers aboard the C-5, said there was a lot taking place in a little space of time.

“We were dealing with another (possible mechanical) issue and it kind of popped up in the middle of it,” he said of the health emergency. “We just kind of had to juggle between those two.”

Tech. Sgt. Barnes said all the performance calculations that had set into the aircraft for where they were going (previously Spain and then Dover) had to change on a very short notice.

“It was a lot of juggling,” he said. “It was not like we could completely ignore any one (of the issues).”

A simulated crew door “NOT LOCKED” light is illuminated on the C-5M left-hand forward loadmaster control panel trainer’s at the 373rd Training Squadron, Detachment 3 on Dover Air Force Base. During a recent mission dubbed Reach 190, an aircrew from the 9th Airlift Squadron had this light illuminate, causing a “PRESS DOOR OPEN” warning to appear on the pilot’s, copilot’s and flight engineer’s Multifunction Display Units. United States Air Force photo/Roland Balik

First Lt. Parsch said preparation led to a positive outcome in an unusual situation.

“I’d say it’s a pretty clear demonstration of the training that we’ve had,” said First Lt. Parsch. “Basically, the Air Force did a good job of preparing us not only for our mission, but also for potential emergencies or abnormalities that could (affect) our mission.

“There’s a lot of work in between the plane landing and when we’re up at cruise (altitude). So, we’re basically trying to manage all the tasks that we have to achieve and make sure all the crewmembers are also handling all the things that they have to do while managing this emergency issue.”

Capt. Howard agreed about the preparedness of his flight crew.

“Every airman in the United States Air Force has some medical training, so that was certainly applied in this case to initially resolve the situation and hopefully stabilize the passenger,” he said. “Those actions were initially performed just like we’re all trained to do and then when we landed at Memphis International the first responders met us at the airplane and took over and provided much better medical care than we could provide.”

Upon returning to Dover Air Force Base a couple of hours following the unexpected landing in Memphis, the air crew got some rest, but were able to finish their mission and fly their cargo load and passengers to Spain the very next day.

This time with no incidents or diversions — though they would have been ready had they happened.