Edge of space emergency tests aviator’s skills

(U.S. Air Force photo/Andy Morataya)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) — Imagine being at the cusp of the world, where everything flat warps and the earth’s curvature begins to appear.

Looking around on a bright and sunny day, the sky is a brilliant blue. The blue eventually turns to black as space comes within reach.

This is the view U-2 pilots like Maj. Jack Nelson witness each time they fly — they get to see the world from a different perspective. It can be a pleasant experience when all goes well, but not when dealing with an in-flight emergency.

Nelson was flying high above the earth when the three multi-function displays that provide the information for the autopilot, navigation, primary heading and reference systems stopped working. To get home safely, he had to troubleshoot the issue while flying.

“Every aviator knows when you step out to a mission, there is an element of risk,” Nelson said. “There’s always risk that we accept. A lot of pilots don’t like to talk about it, and we don’t always want to think about it, but it’s definitely something that’s out there. Flying planes is a risky business, but it’s really great to know you have one of the best teams in the world that’s got your back when you are out there flying and something does go wrong.”

Nelson was able to reset the multi-function display; however, that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Shortly after the reset, the aircraft’s environmental control system malfunctioned, leaving the pilot flying in sub-zero temperatures.

After landing, Nelson reflected on the fact that there was a huge team of Airmen, civilians and contractors working overtime to get him home safely, many of whom greeted him on the flightline.

“Seeing how much they cared, their commitment and how hard they were working to try and find a solution was really cool,” Nelson said.

For his efforts, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented Nelson with the 2015 Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy during a ceremony May 25 at the Pentagon.

The annual award, first presented in 1958, is given to an Air Force aircrew member who displays extraordinary skill, alertness and ingenuity in averting or minimizing the seriousness of a flight mishap.

“It’s about taking a situation that’s not supposed to occur and turning it into normal, or at least as normal as you can get. For 59 years now, it’s 59 averted catastrophes; it’s 59 (intense) moments that became calm at some point. It’s 59 pilots or aircrew that came home to their families who might not have if they hadn’t been as prepared as they were,” Welsh said. “That’s what this award is all about. It’s real simple, and yet it’s magnificent.”

The award’s namesake, 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., was declared missing in the line of duty when his T-33 Shooting Star disappeared off the coast of California in 1955.

The Kolligian family attends and supports the award presentation every year, creating long-lasting friendships which are on display for all to see in three sets of photo albums. The family takes the citation and photos from the ceremony every year and places it in an album for the following year’s attendees to see.

“Since 1958 our family has been honored to be invited to the Pentagon,” said Koren Kolligian II, Lt. Kolligian’s nephew. “Every year we get to meet remarkable pilots, spending time with them and their families, sharing stories and creating friendships. Coming here every year is a powerful reminder of how truly fortunate we are to be Americans. We leave energized, infused with the pride, professionalism and dedication of everyone we meet throughout the day. We are appreciative and thankful to the men and women who ensure this ceremony continues to inspire all who attend.”

Nelson, a former wing safety officer, put his years of training and experience to the test, remaining calm under intense pressure.

“Our safety record in the Air Force is grounded on Airmen taking action based on training, experience and instinct to overcome challenges in mission accomplishment,” said Maj. Gen. Andrew M. Mueller, the Air Force chief of safety. “Skill, alertness and ingenuity are the hallmarks of our Kolligian award winners, and can often make the difference in the severity of a mishap. Maj. Jack Nelson was able to utilize all of these traits to respond to a unique and dangerous in-flight event. I am proud to stand with the Air Force chief of staff and the Kolligian family as this Air Force award is given.”

“Alone and unafraid” is a common term used in the U-2 enterprise. Think about being in an aircraft barely large enough to stretch your legs in, on the cusp of space, looking down on Earth can be daunting. However, Nelson said he was never alone. He had a team who assisted him in one of the most difficult days of his life.