A typical training flight over Georgia last spring turned nightmarish for A-10C Thunderbolt II pilot Capt. Taylor Bye when her attack aircraft began falling apart in midair.
Juggling a malfunctioning 30mm Gatling gun, a landing gear that wouldn’t deploy and a cockpit canopy that fell off in flight, Bye managed to safely land the aircraft with minimal damage to the runway or the plane.
Her courage and cool in crisis earned her the Air Combat Command’s Airmanship Award in a May 5 ceremony at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, where she serves as a 75th Fighter Squadron pilot and its chief of standardization and evaluation.
The emergency occurred April 7, 2020, while Bye was flying at the Grand Bay Bombing and Gunnery Range east of Moody. During a surface attack ride, a key maneuver for swooping down to shoot at enemies on the ground, Bye tried to fire the A-10′s gun but suffered “severe failures,” according to a May 7 Air Force release.
She climbed farther away from the ground to check whether her engines were still functioning. Her nearby wingman, Maj. Jack Ingber, the squadron’s assistant operations director, looked over her jet from his own plane and helped guide Bye back to the runway.
“When anything [unusual] happens, it’s apparent and very easy to spot it and fix it,” Ingber said in the release. “It’s my primary job to think of everything that [Bye] is not because she has a massive handful of an airplane that is falling apart.”
On her canopy-less descent back to Moody, Bye tried to shift down in her seat to shield herself from the 350-mph winds whipping the plane — but blocked her view of the runway in the process.
“I thought, ‘where’s the ground, where’s the ground’ … I was holding my breath at that point,” she said in the release. “I guess I was nervous the whole time, but I didn’t have time to think about being nervous. My job was to take care of myself and to take care of the jet.”
A chase aircraft accompanied her back to base, where airmen on the ground hoped she could avoid a fatal crash.
“What’s most important is preventing total loss of the A-10 or even worse, her life,” squadron commander Lt. Col. Stephen Joca said.
Bye maintained control of the aircraft and safely landed the Warthog on its belly.
The Air Force has tried to retire the 1970s-era attack planes but was rebuffed by Congress. It will instead rely on further refurbishment to fly Warthogs for about another two decades.
It’s not the first time an A-10 pilot has encountered such a harrowing experience. In 2017, Michigan Air National Guard Maj. Brett DeVries landed a Warthog sans canopy or functioning landing gear at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center after his gun misfired during a strafing run. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the military’s highest award for aerial achievements, fall.
The Air Force logged five A-10 mishaps in fiscal 2020, according to Air Force Safety Center data. In addition to Bye’s experience, a similar accident occurred in Nevada in July 2020 when an A-10′s engine stalled and its gun overheated, causing significant damage but no injuries.
The other incidents involved engine issues: A Warthog suffered an engine fire during flight but safely returned to base in Afghanistan in January 2020. Another mishap in Arizona in March 2020 saw the A-10′s engine compressor stall out; the engine was damaged and the pilot returned to base without injury. A second event in Arizona in April 2020 involved an engine that caught fire and shut down in flight, but the pilot was not hurt.
“This doesn’t happen very often in the history of the A-10,” Joca said of Bye’s incident. “There are some steps that were covered in the [safety] checklist — the rest was just superb airmanship and decision-making.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.