Last year, Lt. Col. Daniel Finnegan was in the middle of a training exercise when the F-16 Fighting Falcon he was piloting caught on fire, causing severe damage to the controls and connections to the power generators.
Finnegan, who was deployed in Kuwait at the time, was stuck well above the ground in an aircraft that had lost all displays, navigation instruments and radio. He had no way of knowing the remaining power reserves of the aircraft, the speed he was going or any other necessary flight information.
“I remember looking out the left side, seeing what I could see for visual references, which was nothing, and then hearing the emergency power unit fire,” Finnegan, who is now the plans officer for the Vermont National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing, told the Air Force. “I looked around and the entire cockpit was blacked out.”
But Finnegan, incredibly, stayed calm and was able to execute a heavy-weight landing on “feel” alone. Not only did he land safely, Finnegan saved the near-inoperable fighter jet from any further damage.
For his actions, Finnegan was awarded the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein during a ceremony Monday at the Pentagon.
“The Kolligian Trophy is one of the most coveted of all aviation awards,” Goldfein said, according to the Air Force. “Recipients are recognized for their extraordinary skill in averting or minimizing the impact of a flight mishap.”
Unable to see and surrounded by desert, Finnegan eventually was able to find his way by following a road that guided him back to base.
He also was able to regain some radio communication with the control tower and flew a low pass by the control tower to confirm that his landing gear was down, according to the Air Force.
Despite the speed breaks and both rear and leading edge flaps being inoperable, Finnegan was able to land the aircraft safely.
“In the F-16, when you’re slow, there’s a feeling of sinking, and when you’re fast, there’s just a feeling of going fast,” Finnegan said, according to the Air Force. “It was finding that happy medium that allowed me to get the aircraft on the ground and come to a full stop.”
The Koren Kolligian Trophy was established in 1957 to memorialize 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., an Air Force pilot declared missing in the line of duty when his T-33 Shooting Star disappeared off the California coast Sept. 14, 1955, according to the Air Force.