RQ-4 pilots act decisively to save aircraft

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft with an integrated sensor suite that provides global all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bobbi Zapka)

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft with an integrated sensor suite that provides global all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bobbi Zapka)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif -- Being separated by hundreds, or even thousands of miles from your aircraft is an experience unique to the remotely piloted aircraft community. When something malfunctions in the air it requires a special set of skills to overcome, which is exactly what two RQ-4 Global Hawk pilots used in August of 2016. Working together they saved an aircraft after a potentially catastrophic fault in the Global Hawk’s oil system.

Capt. Thomas, 12th Reconnaissance Squadron RQ-4 pilot and Capt. Travis, 9th Operational Support Squadron wing scheduler acted decisively and used their extensive training to save the $130 million aircraft.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, serves as the U.S. Air Force high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft. The pilots operate the aircraft from within the Mission Control Element (MCE) on the ground.

“About six hours into our mission it became clear there was a fault in the oil system, at that point, we went straight into the checklists and utilized our training to assess the situation,” said Thomas.

“During the experience I learned I knew a lot more about the aircraft system than I had ever realized,” said Thomas. “When we went through the checklist, I began to see that from my training I had a real systemic understanding of why the malfunction was occurring, and that enabled me to anticipate what could occur next.”

The already stressful situation was amplified as Thomas was nearing his mandatory crew rest period and had to hand over the malfunctioning aircraft to Travis so he could finish the flight.

When the situation was declared an emergency the RQ-4 was around 400 miles off the coast of California, and the decision was made to attempt to get the aircraft back to Beale.

Travis recalls what it was like taking over from Thomas for the last two hours of the flight.

“At first when I took over, I was aware of a generator issue. The situation didn’t seem too severe, but shortly after we discovered the oil system fault. That pushed the situation into a much more severe category,” he said “Capt. Thomas was still there at that point so we both reacted immediately and I began going into the checklists.”

In a short amount of time a decision had to be made about whether or not the aircraft could realistically make it back to Beale or another nearby location.

“I wanted to try my best to get the aircraft back safely, the engine was still running and I continued to monitor the oil system levels. The big consideration was the safety of people on the ground as we got closer to the coast,” Travis said. “Considering all the factors in play, working toward the right decision made for a challenging situation.”

The inflight emergency resulted in the aircraft being safely diverted to Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Travis reflected on what it was like when the RQ-4 finally landed.

“It was a really good feeling when it touched down at Edwards, I was just glad it made it and I played my part.”
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