WASHINGTON – Capt. Brett DeVries was 150 feet off the ground on a strafing run when the 30 mm gun of his A-10 misfired at the same moment the entire canopy of his aircraft blew off.
DeVries, a pilot with the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan Air National Guard was training July 20 with wingman Maj. Shannon Vickers and two other A-10s over Michigan’s Grayling Air Gunnery Range. DeVries was in the middle of his second run when a “donut of gas” enveloped DeVries’ gun and aircraft.
At that instant the canopy blew off and exposed the pilot to 325 knot winds. The winds overtook his helmet and slammed into his chest. DeVries’ head was buffeted back and forth as he worked to control the aircraft and climb to a higher altitude. Instinct kicked in and DeVries lowered the seat as far as it would go to offer some protection from the air around him and assess the damage.
In an Air Force press release on the accident, both DeVries and Vickers described what happened next.
Vickers didn’t see the incident but he saw DeVries start to rapidly climb. Vickers flew to his wingman, coming up underneath the aircraft to assess damage. The blown canopy had damaged the bottom of the aircraft too.
Inside the cockpit, DeVries wanted to run through his checklists — but without a canopy it was impossible.
“There was paper everywhere. And I was afraid to open up my emergency checklist, because I knew that would just blow away and maybe get sucked into an engine.”
The two aircraft began the return to base. Vickers and DeVries ran through options on the route. Could he eject? It was unclear if the damage the gun had done has also damaged the ejection seat.
Could he land? DeVries pushed down to lower the landing gear with Vickers watching closely.
“Gear up!” Vickers shouted over the radio. The A-10‘s nose wheel was hung up — the gun’s damage made a normal landing impossible. DeVries got the gear to retract.
There was no other option, DeVries was going to belly-land the plane — no wheels, no canopy.
“I just thought, ‘there is no way this is happening right now,’” Vickers said.
As DeVries and Vickers made the 25-minute flight from explosion to runway, the two pilots “talked through every possibility and how he was going to land it.” They had A-10 maintainers from the base on speakerphone too, giving recommendations to the two.
DeVries came in shallow and slow, landed centerline and exited the badly damaged Warthog on his own.
“In this case, the training took over and it is what made the difference.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."