HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – On June 11, a 421st Fighter Squadron pilot used all his previous flight safety training and then some, as he leaned on his wingman and his experience to respond to an in-flight emergency.
During a four ship G-Awareness Exercise, at 9:35 a.m., Capt. Justin Ankenbruck discovered his control stick had broken loose and instead of moving the characteristic quarter inch in all directions it was now moving one to two inches.
The group of four aircraft had been pulling Gs as the pilots made sure their respective aircraft were warmed up and that safety equipment was working properly, as is customary in the pre-maneuver exercise used for this purpose.
“Ankenbruck recovered his aircraft to wings level, began a climb away from the ground and communicated his malfunction to (Capt. Bryan Brandon),” said Lt. Col. David Shoemaker, 421st FS commander, in a report following the incident.
At this point the two other aircraft cleared off to allow Brandon, 421st FS chief of training, and Ankenbruck to work the emergency.
The F-16 pilot with two years of training, responded by bringing his aircraft to the minimum required altitude for an uncontrolled ejection should that be necessary, set the auto-pilot which was still working, and began to reference the F-16 emergency checklist.
The pair of pilots began to go through the checklist and his wingman, Capt. Brandon, contacted range control at the Utah Test and Training Range, and the 388th Fighter Wing supervisor of flying.
A stick malfunction like this could not be found on the checklist and the two pilots went over the options.
It was decided that Ankenbruck would conduct a controllability check to determine if the aircraft was capable of flight at slow speeds associated with landing.
This check and Ankenbruck’ s assessment that the aircraft could be landed gave the duo a chance to contact Hill AFB to request a straight-in approach with his wingman right behind him to give him any other critical information he might need.
The report further reveals that as Ankenbruck made his final approach he received warning indications of an antiskid braking failure which meant drastically reduced braking action.
“Capt. Ankenbruck also experienced landing crosswinds between 15 to 20 knots, only 5 to 10 knots below the dry runway crosswind limits for the F-16,” Shoemaker notes in the report.
“Despite the difficult crosswinds, control stick malfunction and failed antiskid, Capt. Ankenbruck successfully landed his F-16. His actions saved a $35 million Air Force asset and highlighted the importance of clear and effective flight communication,” the commander noted in the report.
There are no other comparable safety incidents with an F-16’s control stick on record, said Shoemaker as he lauded the pilot’s calm composure during the incident.
“Amazing,” Shoemaker said, during remarks a few weeks later. “This was a wonderful non-incident because of our constant training. Flying fighters is a very risky business. My fear as a commander is that some of our skills atrophy as we fly severely reduced hours.”
“Even with all the training in the world,” said Ankenbruck, “there is still no substitute for strong mutual support within the formation,” as he reflected on the control stick malfunction, his own response and that of his wingman.
Ankenbruck said that he had been able to respond so calmly in part due to his grandfather’s influence.
“The last birthday card I ever got from (him) read simply ‘Fly the plane,’ barely legible due to his deteriorating health. (Those) words have rung true from my undergrad (years) at Purdue, all the way through Air Force pilot training and the (basic training F-16 flight) course,” explained Ankenbruck.
“He was real big on just flying the airplane first, then sorting everything out later. We routinely practice emergency procedures and while they don’t always cover everything — reference control stick breaking — they instill good habit patterns and foster critical thinking.”
His wingman, Brandon, credited his ability to be of assistance through all the monthly Simulated Emergency Procedures Training on all types of emergencies while in a formation and Cockpit Resource Management on how to use all the resources in the cockpit and your wingman in any situation. He added that similar emergency training and F-16 training was crucial as well.
Brandon revealed that what he had uppermost in his mind was to make sure he was a help and not a hindrance during all the back-up with all the checklists and radio calls.
As flight chief of training, Brandon concluded, “The F-16 will surprise you. You never know what kind of emergency you will have and you might have never seen it before. Just go back to the basics of aviate, navigate and then communicate and trust your wingman to be there for you.”