When landing cable snapped on USS Eisenhower, pilots say years of training kicked in
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 31, 2016
NORFOLK — Hurtling toward the Atlantic Ocean off the deck of an aircraft carrier leaves little time for fear.
Lt. Matthew Halliwell and Lt. Cmdr. Kellen Smith leaned on instinct developed by years of training when a steel cable that was supposed to stop their E-2C Hawkeye on the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in March snapped instead.
Their quick reactions saved the turboprop aircraft – assigned to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123, or the “Screwtops,” – and earned pilot Halliwell, co-pilot Smith, who was also serving as the aircraft controller, and Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Browning, a naval flight officer on board, the Armed Forces Air Medal for valor for what Navy investigators called “phenomenal airmanship.” Eight sailors on the flight deck were injured in the incident.
Things could have ended much more tragically for the Hawkeye’s crew, but there was little time to consider that, Halliwell and Smith said in interviews Tuesday.
Everything seemed normal March 18 as the Hawkeye landed and snagged the Ike’s No. 4 arresting wire, called a cross-deck pendant, Halliwell said. That changed in a matter of seconds.
“We realized we weren’t slowing down fast enough,” Halliwell said.
That realization was followed by a bang and a shudder as the cable split on the aircraft’s tailhook, which slammed the deck as the Hawkeye accelerated.
Halliwell shifted to maximum power and lifted the Hawkeye’s landing gear while Smith opened the aircraft’s ditching hatches and lowered its flaps – movable parts of the wing that help manage flight angles.
“That gave us some more lift on the aircraft so we were able to fly away at a much lower air speed after descending below the deck for some time,” Halliwell said.
Video of the incident shows the plane disappearing off the flight deck for a heart-dropping four seconds before reappearing.
Halliwell is now an instructor with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Training Squadron 120, a fleet replacement squadron based at Norfolk Naval Station.
After going off the Ike’s deck, he remembered seeing water, then water and sky combined. Finally, there was only sky as the plane recovered and the crew flew 45 minutes to return to Chambers Field at the naval station, unaware of the severity of injuries on the deck.
The cable’s backlash fractured legs, a pelvis, an ankle and a wrist. One sailor suffered skull and facial fractures, and another a possible traumatic brain injury.
Mike Maus, a spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic, said three of the injured sailors, including two from VAW 123, left with the Ike in June for a seven-month deployment to the Middle East and Mediterranean. Two others have transferred to new commands while two are on limited duty at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Another remains with the Ike beach attachment in Norfolk.
Halliwell said he may have been afraid “for a brief second, but then we were more focused on living.”
“It was only one second between where the wire snapped and when we went over the deck so, just kind of fell back on training and instinct,” he said.
Smith deployed with the Ike. He remembered seeing the wake off the Ike’s bow and the churn of the Atlantic below.
“I have no exact recollection of or no way of knowing exactly how close we were to water, I know we just were really close,” Smith said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It was certainly a good feeling when I saw that water disappear beneath me.”
Halliwell has been reluctant to talk about his role in saving the Hawkeye and its crew, saying Tuesday that he acted as any another properly trained pilot would.
Grainy black-and-white video of the incident has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. Comments left on the website have cited Halliwell and Smith’s heroics, comparing the recovery to something out of Hollywood. Both men have seen the video, which they called hard to watch.
While things worked out just fine for the Hawkeye crew, there “were a lot of guys there on the deck that did a lot of more heroic things that were more so not just trying to save their own lives but trying to save the other guys,” Halliwell said.
A Navy investigation blamed human error arising from a complex, non-user-friendly procedure for working with the arrested landing gear engines after a previous landing resulted in a fault code. The Navy found no evidence of willful dereliction of duty or negligence by the maintenance workers.
Smith continues to fly while deployed. He said he looks forward to his upcoming wedding and hopes the Chicago Bears are strong enough to vie for the NFC championship while he’s away. The March incident reminded him of the importance of remaining vigilant on the job.
“That mindset to be ready for the unexpected, be ready to spring to action, you know, that’s certainly something to keep forward in our minds especially up on the flight deck or flying in and around it,” Smith said.
©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.