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Lt. Col. Joseph Santucci climbed down the ladder of the U-2 Dragon Lady, then felt his legs give way. That's when he realized how exhausted he was, physically and mentally.
The pilot had just endured nearly an hour of hugging the spy plane's manual controls to his chest — using every ounce of strength in his 160-pound frame — to keep the jet from plunging into a steep dive.
It was dark, he was in a high-altitude flight suit, and he couldn't eject or he might be struck by his own aircraft. He had no choice but to keep flying and slowly descend from 52,000 feet until he was back on the ground at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.
The Air Force is recognizing Santucci's extraordinary efforts on that night, Feb. 12, 2009, with the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy, given annually to an aircrew member for outstanding feats of skill, alertness, ingenuity or proficiency that avert an accident or minimize the severity of the mishap.
Named for 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., declared missing in the line of duty when his T-33 jet trainer disappeared off the California coast Sept. 14, 1955, the trophy is the service's only individual safety award personally presented by the Air Force chief of staff. A date for the presentation at the Pentagon has not been set.
Santucci's mission was supposed to be a standard training flight to help him re-qualify to fly U-2s. After five years of staff jobs and school, Santucci was back commanding the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale and needed to brush up on his pilot skills.
The flight plan called for Santucci to fly east over the Sierra Nevada mountains, turn around and head back to Beale. Total estimated time in the air: four hours.
For the first three hours, everything went fine — or so Santucci thought. Inside the black fuselage, though, there was a problem. Electrical wires had rubbed together, shorting out a system called "auto trim" that helps set the angle of the nose by controlling the position of the rear horizontal tail flaps.
Santucci hadn't noticed any difference in the jet's handling because the autopilot counteracted the malfunctioning auto trim.
It was when Santucci turned off the autopilot to start his descent from 52,000 feet that he discovered something was horribly wrong: The jet's nose plummeted from a slight descent to 60 degrees low, toward a swirling snow storm over the mountains. He reached for the manual control, called the yoke, which controlled the plane's direction.
"I immediately began pulling the yoke, to keep the nose up," Santucci said.
Figuring the auto trim was the problem, Santucci quickly reached with one hand to turn off the trim system.
It didn't do any good. The plane continued to pull downward, and Santucci had no choice but to hold the yoke tight to his chest.
Ejection wasn't an option — at least not a realistic one. To bail out, Santucci would have had to take his hands off the yoke and pull the ejection handle between his legs. Santucci was certain the jet would have gone into a dive again once he released the yoke and he could very well have been struck by the plane as he ejected.
To make matters even worse, Santucci struggled to keep his situational awareness because of the darkness and isolated location. There were no city lights or horizon lines to tell up from down.
"It is just like you're in a blacked-out room and the room is pitching you around," he recalled.
Over the radio, Santucci contacted Capt. Geno Georgescu, the mission's supervisor of flight, and Capt. Josh Massie, the pilot assigned to help Santucci in the final moments of the landing.
Although Georgescu and Massie were on the ground, Santucci compared them to wingmen, offering advice and correcting mistakes.
"They kind of did the thinking for me," Santucci said. "They were both really awesome, keeping me calm."
Santucci slowed the plane from about 175 mph to about 85 mph, fast enough to keep the U-2 aloft but slow enough to avoid the extreme downward forces Santucci survived at the ordeal's start.
After about 30 minutes of slowly descending, Santucci broke below the clouds at 8,000 feet and spotted Beale in the distance. Seeing the runway lights convinced Santucci that he could land.
On the final approach, Massie raced down Beale's runway in a chase car, telling Santucci how high and level the U-2 was.
Minutes later, the jet touched down and rolled to a stop. An aircraft recovery team rushed to help Santucci out of the jet.
"I came down the ladder feeling beaten up," he said.
Then, his legs collapsed underneath him.
Base doctors examined Santucci. They gave him a clean bill of health but warned him that he would be sore and tired.
Looking back, Santucci said the mission taught him what stress a person can endure.
"I realized how amazing the human body is," he said.