Capt. William Mahoney took off from the flight deck of the USS Bataan one day in June 2014 expecting nothing more than a routine flight, though there is nothing strictly routine about launching from or landing aboard a moving 840 foot runway at sea.
Even less routine is taking-off and realizing the front landing gear of your AV-8B Harrier is stuck, severely limiting your ability to land safely, with only two options: ditch the aircraft at sea; or attempt a risky, almost unprecedented landing.
Mahoney chose option two, and was recently awarded the Marine Corps Air Medal for his decisive actions that day while deployed with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 (Reinforced), as part of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Crediting training, teamwork and a lot of luck, Mahoney saved the aircraft and survives to tell the tale.
“I took off and as I was climbing away from the deck, I put my gear up and realized I had a gear malfunction,” said Mahoney. “I immediately pulled the power back and slowed the aircraft down so I wouldn’t over speed the landing gear. Then I went above the ship at about 2,000 feet and started talking to another jet pilot in the tower.”
The pilot in the ship’s control tower assisted Mahoney by researching the malfunction and walking him through the situation.
“Since we are a single pilot aircraft I needed the towers assistance. I flew by the ship and did an approach at 300 feet so the pilot in the tower could see my landing gear and give me an idea of what was going on,” said Mahoney. “He determined that my nose gear did not come back down. At this point it was time to ask myself, ‘How will I get the jet back on the deck safely with only three of my landing gear?’”
Mahoney got word from the control tower on the Bataan letting him know that the ship was equipped with a crash cradle, a stool built to the exact height of the Harrier’s nose. Using the cradle, a pilot can slowly descend to the ship’s deck and place the nose directly onto the stool to prevent further damage.
“For this landing I was going to step it down gradually to make sure I was aligned and stabilized before I was clear me to land at 20 feet so that I had the best chance to actually put the nose on the stool,” said Mahoney, a native of Athens, Ga.
According to Mahoney, aviation basics are drilled into the pilots during flight school. Remain calm, focus and land the aircraft. Continuous readiness training helped Mahoney determine the best course of action during the flight.
“At this point I had kind of forgotten that I had no nose gear and I was just focused on landing, because that’s what I had to do,” said Mahoney. “I’m at 20 feet, stabilized and I can’t see the stool. I don’t even know it’s there. I couldn’t see it coming over the ship, I remember thinking ‘oh boy this is going to get interesting.’”
According to Mahoney, he didn’t realize the severity of the situation until after touching-down. He remained calm, tried not to panic and landed the aircraft as if this were a typical flight.
“I remember idling the aircraft, my main gear hitting and all of a sudden my nose dropping. It dropped more than I expected, but at that point I was along for the ride,” said Mahoney. “I remember feeling it just hit and that’s it, but then I had to sit there for a minute and remember how to turn the jet off and shut everything off. It was just a pretty big relief and I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I actually got out of the aircraft.”
According to Mahoney, Harrier pilots pride themselves on their ability to land on ship, on the same spot, every time. Piloting a 30-thousand pound aircraft, pulling to a hover over a moving target before landing leaves little room for error, Mahoney said.
“When we go out and do what we do there is zero room for error,” said Mahoney. “Whether you are landing a single seat aircraft on a ship or employing ordnance, you have to get it right the first time.”
During the ceremony, the commanding officer of the 22nd MEU, Col. William Dunn, lauded Mahoney for his actions.
“In the world of ejection seat aircraft, it is not always the first choice to bring the airplane back after something like this and risk the pilot, but this was incredible,” said Dunn. “Aircraft damage was minimal, and that plane did fly missions at the end of that deployment. Capt. Mahoney did a phenomenal job.”
To see a video recounting of Mahoney’s actions, visit http://www.dvidshub.net/video/346499/controlled-landing-feature-with-graphics#.VNjmJKqKA-4.