A helping hand isn’t far at Vance

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Nowland
  • 71st Flying Training Wing commander
Have you ever heard a retired Air Force member who is now working as a contractor use the phrase "Oh, I'm just a slimy contractor." Inherent in that statement is a common belief that contractors are not part of the total team because they are working only for the money or a profit.

Unfortunately, within the Air Force this bias is easy to throw around and to a certain extent is a prejudice that is perpetuated from generation to generation. Some take the conversion of contractor capabilities to civil service capabilities under Resource Management Decision 802, which is a priority of Congress, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force, to be a validation of their opinions regarding contractors.

Well, here at Vance, we recently had an incident that hopefully will shift some people's opinions. For close to two years now, I have been preaching that at Vance whether you are a contractor, guardsman, reservist, civil servant or active duty, we are all part of a team. A team all working together to achieve our 71st Flying Training Wing's mission of producing world class pilots and training combat mission ready Airmen to serve overseas helping our nation win the current fight.

The idea of a team is a common theme and certainly I'm not the first to push the idea. "Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work," said Vince Lombardi, the National Football League coach who led the Green Bay Packers to win the very first Super Bowl in 1967.

You know what -- Mr. Lombardi would have been proud of Team Vance on Friday, April 2, when one of our student pilots had an unexpected change in his training schedule. The student learned how effective the Martin-Baker Mark 16 ejection seat is when he punched out of his T-6A Texan II while on his full stop landing roll after a solo training mission.

The aircraft was departing the runway when he ejected. By the time his parachute opened, a series of events began that proves beyond a doubt in my mind that "individual commitment to a group effort" is exactly how Lombardi would describe Team Vance.

Lennit Williams, a contract partner with our maintenance team, saw the young pilot ejecting from his T-6. He grabbed his radio, made a call to the maintenance operations center, jumped in his truck and drove to the scene where he jumped out of his truck and ran to the pilot, who had landed about 50 feet away from the aircraft.

While Lennit was racing to help the pilot, Mark Rutledge and Mike Morriss, two more contract partners with our maintenance team, heard Lennit's radio call and headed for the scene. The T-6 had departed the runway and continued straight ahead about 150 feet until the tires mired down into the mud caused by a torrential rain the night before. The T-6's engine was still churning and the propeller was digging into the mud and slinging clods of dirt back towards the tail of the aircraft.

All of team Vance was quick to respond. But Mark, Mike and Lennit, along with the fire department, were the first to arrive. So as Mark stayed with Lennit and the pilot, Mike Morriss headed for the aircraft where he found the fire chief. The Team Vance firemen, who were wearing full protective gear, were having a tough time trying to get the aircraft shut down. Their suits were functioning as sails. The "prop wash" from the T-6 propeller was catching their protective gear and blowing them off the wing. Seeing Mike there, the fire chief asked him if he could turn off the aircraft's engine. Without hesitation, Mike jumped onto the wing and before he could get a footing, the prop wash knocked him off the wing, scraping his shin on the way down. He made a second attempt, his eyes closed tight against the flying mud and debris, but with no better success.

Meanwhile, Lennit and Mark were looking after the pilot, who was in enough pain and shock to ask Lennit if he was going to be OK. The contractor assured him the best emergency medical team in the command was just seconds away and he would be just fine. He grabbed the pilot's hand and held it tight until the medical team arrived.

Not willing to be defeated by some mud and prop wash and with the help of his fire department mates, Mike made a third attempt to get up on the T-6 wing so he could reach the cockpit controls. This time he made it, and sticking his arm through the absent cockpit glass, pulled off the throttle and killed the engine.

Why did Lennit and Mark do what they did? Why did Mike keep trying to reach the aircraft controls despite cuts, scrapes and a banged up shin? It was because these three men, these three contractors, have pride in what they do and are part of a team -- Team Vance. They are dedicated to our base, our mission and are concerned about their teammates.

The pilot was taken to a local hospital where, to the relief of his wife, squadron members and all the first responders, he was treated and released.

But the spirit of teamwork had more shining to do before the day was done. There are explosives involved in making an ejection seat work. And those explosives had to be made safe before much can be done with the aircraft.

Mike Jones and Jerod Clark, two more of our contract partners in the egress shop, were the first on the scene, after Mike Morriss had shut down the engine. They made the backseat and the canopy systems safe and looked around the aircraft to make sure all the explosive elements were safe and accounted for.

Now here is where I am really impressed with the contractor side of our Team Vance triad. Jerod and the head of the egress shop, Arnold Miller, headed for the ejection seat the student pilot rode out of the T-6.

Things change on an ejection seat after it has done its job. We don't have many used seats at Vance, so the egress shop doesn't see many. In fact, they didn't have any written guidance on how to make one safe. For a lot of fellows, that would have been the end of the discussion. They could have said, "Not my job." But not Jerod and Arnold. They found some experts to guide them and went about the business of making linkages safe, releasing pressure from the deployment unit and gas lines. And finally they helped the safety investigation team gather up everything they needed.

Why did Mike Jones, Jerod Clark and Arnold Miller go the extra mile to do what they did? Because they also take pride in their work and are part of the team.

And you know what? Along with every other member of Team Vance, I am very proud that they are. So, the next time you hear someone make a pejorative statement about a contractor, a guardsman, a reservist, a civil servant or an active duty member, make sure you remind them to think that statement through -- because each and every one of us is part of our team. And as a teammate you never know when you may need to extend your hand in a time of need, but I guarantee here at Vance, it will be grasped.