First PAVE LOW Operation
A priest en-route to ABQ crashed his light plane on a mesa during a snowy zero-zero night. PJs splinted a fractured ankle, administered IV.
Steve Connelly (AC) | Barry Walls (deseased) (CP)
John Adrian (FE) | Rick Simmon (FE)
Mike Brown (PJ) | Pat Sinon (PJ)
From Col (Ret) Steve Connelly:
Mission was in 1980 I think in Jan. I would have to go search out the date if you need it, but Darrel [Whitcomb] knows it too. Tail # was 1652.
Rick Simmon and John Adrian and I had been doing runs on this A/C all afternoon. Transmission oil pressure was marginal to low and we had done run drain and flush, adjusted the bypass valve, re‐flush and gotten it as good as we could. We were training with the avionics when the day finally burned out and the crew chief was pouring new oil in the MGB one can at a time. I helped him a bit and told Simmon and Adrian to leave (they were going bowling w/ their wives.
Once I had cleaned up the forms and done what I could do I headed in to the life support and found out walking by the CP that an A/C was down on the mesa (icing) and the pilot was hurt. The civil helos had already tried to go but the weather was terrible, it was snowing and the weather was so low the field was closed and the helos with special VFR could not make it off the field with the weather so bad. The wing CC asked if I could execute the mission. I said sure if I had a crew.
The CP found some PJs and told them the tail number to find (it would be the only thing making noise on the flight line). Adrian and Simmon verified that they hadn’t been drinking and I asked them to rush back to 1652 for a SAR. [Probably great fun to be paged at the bowling alley and then grab your flight suit, boots and run out of the building…probably several 1000 PAVE LOW COOL points]. Only pilot we could find was Barry Walls, he had never been in a Pave Low but was a slick 53 IP. I was a Pave Low IP, so it would work, other than the field being closed.
I went back to 1652, the crew chief was cold, but the gearbox was full and the snow was blowing. The Crew chief and I prepped the machine, fixed the forms, fired up the APU, and I got a couple alignments to get a tight INS (No GPS back in those days). I got some coordinates from an overhead C‐130 King (who got very little credit for his effort that night).
The PJs, FEs, and Major Barry walls all showed up at the same time and I put Barry in the right seat, explained to him the symbology (it was pretty simple back then). We taxied, got a special VFR (field was closed) and headed to the mesa, we went IMC at about 100 feet, climbed west over the wires and descended toward the mesa at 100 feet SCP. Barry was flying with a dive command and we couldn’t see the ground at 150 feet so I took the A/C and flew down to 100 SCP and we could see the ground directly under us to about 45 degrees from nadir.
We were flying first pass toward the coordinates we suspected as the location (might have been a radial DME off of the ABQ TACAN). We spotted some lights, saw the plane, and got a store point ‐ a little past the site, but we got it. We saw the lights for just a few seconds at 100 knots (vis was really bad), and nowhere near long enough to make a quick stop on that pass. I doubt we saw the lights more than 200 feet away and we were too fast, and low, for the weather conditions, to do a tactical type approach (we were not using NVGs in the cockpit back then).
We TF’d a 90 / 270 Pattern to make an approach back to the store point on a reciprocal heading slowing to near coupler speeds and expected to see the lights several hundred feet past the store point. The plan worked, and we picked up the lights again and made a landing. On scene were some police cars and news people etc as the accident was not far from I‐40.
The emergency vehicle lights were key in helping us quickly find the site (there were no radios out there). The PJs were taking their time as news crews were out there filming. Maj Walls and I discussed the return to ABQ plan while Simmon watched the MGB pressure drop with increased temperature. We sent Adrian to tell the PJs that based on the slowly falling MGB pressure, we would be spending the night if they weren’t ready to move.
Very quickly the patient (who had a pneumatic splint, IV, space blanket and litter) was on board and we lifted off into instant IMC for the flight home (10 miles). Barry flew us home using TF for ground clearance (adding some SCP due to wires west of the field (we were approaching the field from the mesa and were TFing below the field elevation as we approached).
As we climbed up above field elevation the radar broke out the runway, the nav system brought us onto ILS final and we used the TFR almost climbing to the DH as we came in (Field was still closed). We saw the runway end lights as we flew over them and about a 1000 feet down the runway as we slowed to touchdown speed we could see probably 1000 feet (Vis in the river valley/ and on the mesa was worse).
I think we logged about 1.4 (I looked that up for the PL History recently) and we were A3 for MGB pressure as I remember. The articles in the paper highlighted Major Walls, which was fine with me; he was a great guy, and good Major. He was the Major.
It was pretty simple mission. Barry said he had vertigo as soon as we hit the clouds. When we first got over the mesa, completely IMC, he was flying at 150′ and 100 knots just looking at the radar altimeter. It was as low as his brain would let him go and I mentioned that must have been pretty scary flying around like that on a radar altimeter. I used and trusted the radar and guess descending to 100 foot on command was eye opening to him. I was right at home as it was more simple and shorter than any of the training missions we conducted every day. The guys in back had goggles (full face PVS 5s). Back in those days the pilots were prohibited from using goggles we flew ‘the system’ to the hover.
Heck of an intro to Pave Low for Barry. Simmon and Adrian went back to the bowling alley, I think, I filled out the forms and while I remember sitting in the seat and asking Barry to talk to the cameras when we landed at ABQ and moved the pax to the ambulance, I don’t remember getting out of the cockpit, or what happened the rest of the night. It didn’t seem like a big deal (to me); the ground lights from emergency vehicles really helped us (though we did see the A/C on first pass so we had a good fix on position).
It was, in retrospect, a significant moment for the Pave Low as night adverse weather was the design mission and it had proven its capability at night in ceiling and visibility conditions just about as bad as you could get as ABQ /Kirtland was closed to traffic for the duration.