A civilian pilot suvived because Cannon Air Force Base took emergency steps to guide his damaged plane to Cannon’s runways during severe weather on March 12, according to Col. Robert Yates, 27th Fighter Wing commander.
“When you have a fellow pilot in trouble you just pull out all the stops to get them on the ground safely and then ask questions later,” Yates said.
Col. Lee “Tip” Wight, operations group commander at Cannon, said he got a phone call about 10 that night alerting him that a small, four-seater civilian plane piloted by a retired physician, Dr. George Carlson, had struck a power line while trying to land at Clovis Municipal Airport, lost its radio communications, and was in danger of running out of fuel.
Cannon’s runways were shut down for the night due to weather conditions that were unsafe for military flying, and Wight said things would have been much worse for a civilian pilot in a light plane.
“I’ve got almost 3,000 hours of flight time and this is about as bad weather as you will fly in,” Wight said. “The weather was right at our approach minimums and only our most experienced pilots would have been flying in those situations. It’s something you need to be prepared, trained and proficient in doing — it can be very challenging when all your systems are working, and without the ability to talk to your controllers, it must have been very frustrating.”
To complicate the situation, the runway lights at Clovis Municipal Airport are normally activated by a radio signal from the pilot rather than by a human controller on the ground. Not only was the pilot unable to speak to the controllers, he was unable to switch on the lights or even find the runway due to low clouds, and he kept circling the Clovis area trying to find the correct approach.
“My only thought was he was flying in very thick and very bad weather,” said Staff Sgt. Richard Wickenkamp, a traffic controller on duty that night. “ I got in contact with some of our maintenance personnel and asked if they could put a spotlight out on one of the taxiways and hopefully have him see one of them through a break in the clouds.”
Cannon personnel also called the Clovis and Portales municipal airports and arranged to have them turn on their runway lights. In the end, none of that helped — but a bit of luck did.
Cannon controllers began to transmit on every frequency that the civilian plane could possibly receive. For a few seconds, Cannon’s tower was able to make contact with the plane and advise the pilot to come to Cannon where the weather was slightly better, the facility was equipped with radar transponders, and emergency crash teams were immediately available.
“After about 45 minutes to an hour without communications, suddenly he responded that he was hearing us. We began working in radar approach control to see if there was any way we could help,” Wight said. “As soon as we began vectoring him in, it became obvious he was no longer able to transmit but he could receive our radar vectors.”
With less than a minute advance notice, fire trucks, security forces and ground crews got ready to handle the small plane they saw dropping out of the clouds toward Cannon’s runways. The plane landed without incident, but Wight said the pilot was shaken up.
“Sgt. Wickenkamp is being modest but he was directly involved in saving (Carlson’s) life,” Wight said. “(The controllers) really did a fantastic job, and if they hadn’t done it, we would have been reading about a civilian aviator who crashed or died that night.”
While the retired doctor was physically OK, an examination of his plane showed it wasn’t.
“We saw there was damage to the underside of his aircraft — toward the aft part of the fuselage, his antennas were damaged,” Yates said. “The next morning Col. Wight and our chief of safety, Lt. Col. Dave Kossler, took statements from him to figure out if we could help him get his aircraft fixed. We found a retired master sergeant who was able to get on base and get it fixed enough so he could fly over to Clovis.”
Carlson said he had eight years experience flying his Mooney Ranger airplane and was enroute from a medical conference in San Francisco back to his home in Ardmore, Okla., when the severe weather hit. Carlson said he decided to detour to Clovis out of concern that he wouldn’t have enough gas to make it home.
“Not knowing the extent of the damage I had a difficult time realigning for the approach, but (Cannon personnel) were able to re-establish partial communication with me,” Carlson said. “I think the only thing I would want to add is I very much appreciate what the staff did at Cannon AFB and I was grateful for their help.”
Cannon doesn’t normally land civilian planes on its airfield, and both Wight and Yates said they couldn’t recall ever being involved in a similar incident during their decades in the Air Force. However, both said they were glad the Air Force was able to help.
“Our business is to protect Americans and to serve Americans. That’s why we have a military,” Wight said. “This is not the most common way we would protect and serve Americans but we are happy to do whatever we could to serve.”