You know how it goes. We’ve all had the experience of practicing a skill over and over again until it becomes a habit and we don’t even have to think about it any more. Then, something happens and all hell breaks loose and your day suddenly goes to hell in a handcart. It is then that all that training and practice kicks in and brings us back from the brink of disaster. That is what this story is all about.
Capt. Brett DeVries is an A-10 pilot with the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan National Guard. Like all good fighter pilots, he and his wingman, Maj. Shannon Vickers were constantly training in their aircraft to keep their necessary war fighting skills toned and in shape.
On July 20th of this year, DeVries and Vickers were going through the paces working on their strafing skills with their 30mm guns over the Grayling Air Gunnery Range in Michigan. On DeVries’ second strafing run something went terribly wrong and he found himself in deep trouble.
As he was strafing a target below, flying at 150 feet off the ground, a “donut of gas” developed and exploded around his gun and his entire aircraft. The explosion was so violent that it blew the canopy off of DeVries’ plane, exposing him to the force of 325 knot winds. His head was being buffeted back and forth violently while he was desperately trying to regain control of his A-10.
His instincts and his training kicked in. The first thing he did was to lower his seat as low as it would go in order to reduce the force of the wind on his body and he began a quick climb. In an emergency like this, pilots begin immediately to go over their check lists to see if they can understand and resolve the problems. In this case, DeVries’ checklist papers were scattered and blowing wildly all over the cockpit.
According to an Air Force press release, DeVries said, “There was paper everywhere. And I was afraid to open up my emergency checklist, because I knew that would just blow away and maybe get sucked into an engine.” His wingman, Maj. Vickers, did not see the incident itself, but saw DeVries start a rapid climb and instinctively flew his own plane up to get close to DeVries to see what was going on. He flew underneath DeVries and saw that there was a lot of damage to the bottom of the A-10 caused by the explosion. They began to return to the base all the while communicating with one another as to what to do. They ran through the options, including ejection, but they decided that that might not be an option as the damage caused by the exploding gun might have damaged the ejection seat as well.
DeVries’ next worry was about whether he could land the damaged A-10. He tried to manually lower the landing gear as Vickers watched from his jet. Vickers shouted to DeVries, “Gear up!” The nose wheel was apparently damage by the event as well. A normal landing was clearly going to be out of the question. DeVries was able to get the gear to retract and knew that the only way he was going to get his plane on the ground was with a belly landing. And this without a canopy.
All this took place over the twenty five minute flight back to Selfridge Air National Guard Base. The two pilots went over every detail they could think of about landing the wounded and severely damage A-10. They had ground crews helping them with ideas too. Well, in the end, DeVries’ flying skills came to play. He brought her in low and slow and landed her smoothly on her belly centerline on the runway. He climbed out of her and the rest, as they say, is history.
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This story is about the toughness both of the A-10 and those who pilot them. It is also about the readiness and the willingness of our warfighters to care for and look out for one another. Capt. DeVries was alone in his A-10, vulnerable to the vagaries of a severely damaged plane and the violence of the 325 knot winds that buffeted him in that now open cockpit. But he was not alone in those skies over Michigan. His wingman, Maj. Vickers, was right there with him, watching out for him, sticking with him. And the ground crews did their part as well.
That Warthog is one tough beast though. They are not called flying tanks for nothing. They are so sturdy under fire, so well built, with triple redundancies to every system in its design. Is it any wonder that they are so beloved by their pilots? They are no less loved by the troops on the ground who benefit from the powerful efficiency of the A-10’s weapons systems and the awesome courage and flying skills of their pilots.
The Veterans Site is thankful that we have pilots like Capt. Brett DeVries and Maj. Shannon Vickers. We are thankful that this event concluded with a happy ending. Our respect for the A-10 and its pilots is unstinting. Our military is profoundly skilled and professional. But more importantly, we are proud of how our fighting men and women have each other’s backs.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.