JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — On April 15, 2018, a well-developed storm spanning the entire East Coast was producing thick, low cloud cover, rain showers and strong winds. In a series of unfortunate events exacerbated by weather, a fateful day lay ahead for one pilot and the McGuire Radar Approach Control System team.
While flying from Vincentown to Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bill Brady, a local civilian pilot with 40 years of experience, encountered a minor electrical issue in his aircraft which caused him to cancel the flight and return to Vincentown. The minor issue escalated to complete electrical failure, causing total loss of all radios and navigation equipment.
“The flaps were off, the gears were off – there were five instruments still working,” said Brady. “This isn’t supposed to happen on an airplane. In my years of flying I’ve lost an alternator, no big deal, but we had a complete electrical failure and needed to figure out how to react.”
Brady had no choice but to find somewhere to land, fast.
Using his cell phone, he contacted McGuire air traffic control. The controller who picked up the phone, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Gerson Medina, had difficulty hearing Brady. The call coming through was broken and barely readable. Recognizing the potential of a dropped call, and the severity of the situation, Medina copied Brady’s phone number.
Brady declared an in-flight emergency with intentions to land on the McGuire runway.
“Things were going wrong and I knew if something else goes wrong – I’m dead,” said Brady.
David Vile, 305th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control watch supervisor, picked up the call and delegated actions to the five-man RAPCON team. After guiding Brady via radar, Vile passed the call to fellow controller Bruce Mason for precision approach.
“We were doing a Precision Approach Radar (PAR) approach; we had no radios, so they gave us directions,” said Brady. “We relied on their guidance based on their radars to find our way down. We broke through the cloud cover very low at about 400 feet from the ground.”
On final approach, Brady feared his landing gear had not properly deployed due to the electrical issues and asked for visual confirmation. The landing gear appeared to be working properly so Brady attempted to set the aircraft down.
Upon touchdown, the landing gear catastrophically collapsed and a commotion came through the communication line as the propeller smashed into the ground and the aircraft slid down the flightline.
There was a moment of silence and the controllers waited anxiously.
“The situation was tense,” said Vile. “We were all hoping for the best.”
A voice came over the phone. It was Brady letting the controllers know that he and his passenger were safe and had exited the aircraft onto the freezing flightline.
Though the phone call with the pilot was often broken, unintelligible and dropped several times, the controllers persevered in maintaining communication with the pilot and controlling the situation. Brady says they saved his life.
“I could not have landed without the RAPCON team,” said Brady. “The people on the ground were really terrific. They stayed with me and understood that I could have been in a panic situation. They were extremely professional and did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
When it was all said and done, the McGuire RAPCON team was awarded the Lt. Gen. Gordon. A. Blake Pilot Save Award for their efforts.
“For me, it’s just doing my job,” said Mason. “We never want to be in a situation to receive an award like this because it means someone was in danger. You never know what’s going to happen, so we’re prepared for anything.”