NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — As part of the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron here, Capt. Gregory Farrell is responsible for testing new hardware, software and munitions in an operational environment before the equipment can be accepted into the Air Force inventory.
However, back in August 2013, Farrell, an F-16 Fighting Falcon operational test instructor pilot, was responsible for something every Airman is charged with upon entering the service – being a wingman.
“I was [on temporary duty] and flying over the Atlantic Ocean during a training mission when I heard over the radio that two aircraft had been in a mid-air collision,” Farrell said. “When I heard that I just pointed my nose in the direction of the collision and headed towards their location.”
After arriving on scene, Farrell assessed one of the aircraft had sustained heavy damage, while the other aircraft’s pilot had ejected into the ocean below. Farrell knew his search for the downed pilot was going to be complicated because of the moonless and overcast night, and because his aircraft wasn’t equipped for a search and rescue operation.
“So, I’m basically looking outside with my night-vision goggles trying to find him and I sent my wingman up high to get radio relay and coordinate with the base to get the search and rescue guys out there,” Farrell said. “After about 15 to 30 minutes of not being able to find him in the water and not coming up on the radio, I definitely started to fear the worst – that he wasn’t actually alive down there.”
Finally, the radio silence broke as the downed pilot called out to Farrell.
“That radio call was the best I’ve ever heard,” Farrell said. “What happened to him was he had dislocated both of his knees – tore eight ligaments in his knees when he hit the water – so it took him a while to get into his life raft. Being so dark out it took him a while to find his radio, and I’m sure the amount of pain that he was in, which I never knew because talking to him on the radio, he sounded like he was just normal down there.”
Once he got the downed pilot on the radio, Farrell was able to generate precise coordinates on the pilot’s location to pass on to the U.S. Coast Guard’s search and rescue team, which extracted the pilot one hour after his ejection and just 30 minutes after the pilot made contact with Farrell.
“It was definitely one of the scariest flights I’ve been on but it was also one of the most rewarding too,” Farrell said. “I actually saw [the downed pilot], he was actually out here in Vegas for a Wounded Warriors conference back in November. He had undergone four surgeries, he had total tendon replacements, and he was walking around in what he referred to as his ‘Forrest Gump legs’ at the time, but he’s expected to make a full recovery and hopefully will be flying the Viper again here shortly.”
Farrell was recently awarded the Aviation Safety Well Done Award and according to the award citation, he “displayed outstanding airmanship,” and his “extraordinary skill, ingenuity and proficiency reflect great credit upon himself, Air Combat Command and the United States Air Force.”
Despite receiving the prestigious award, Farrell gained so much more from the whole experience.
“I think any other pilot in my situation would’ve been able to do the same thing because we’re trained from day one on how to deal with a situation like this,” he said. “When I was at that Wounded Warriors conference with him, I met his girlfriend and she just came up to me, gave me a hug and said thank you. That was more of a reward right there than you could ever ask for.”