In spring 2020, Capt. Taylor Bye’s A-10 attack aircraft started falling apart on a training flight.
She had to land with no cockpit canopy, panels falling off, and landing gear up.
Bye recently spoke to Insider about the experience and what it was like getting back in the air afterwards.
The last thing any pilot wants to see is their plane falling apart while they are trying to fly it, but that was the nightmare scenario US Air Force A-10 attack aircraft pilot Capt. Taylor “Petrie” Bye found herself in last year.
On April 7, 2020, a routine training flight suddenly was anything but when the 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger cannon on Bye’s A-10C Thunderbolt II malfunctioned during a gun run at Grand Bay Range at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Problems with the powerful gatling gun triggered a series of catastrophic failures that ultimately forced her to land her plane with no cockpit canopy, missing panels, and landing gear up.
This 75th Fighter Squadron pilot recently talked to Insider about the skillful flying and impressive crash-landing, for which she received not one but two prestigious service awards.
‘Never been so focused on a landing in my entire life’
When Bye attempted to fire the cannon on a strafing run, she heard a troubling pop. Then a light came on warning her that the gun was “unsafe.” Concerned, she quickly climbed to a safer altitude to assess the situation.
Looking over the gauges that relay critical aircraft health information, “everything showed me that my jet was still flying and functioning like normal,” she said, adding that her “immediate response was, ‘Ok, good, I’m not going to fall out of the sky.'”
But while the plane could fly, it was not in great shape. Further assessments with the help of her wingman found that some exterior panels were either missing or hanging off the aircraft, indicating that the gun malfunction had caused damage.
Bye began making preparations to land the plane, which is when she discovered another problem. Part of the plane’s landing gear was inoperable, making a safe landing impossible.
“When it happened, I didn’t panic. I didn’t freak out. I didn’t fear for my life because I knew that I had the training,” she recalled. “My adrenaline was up. I could tell my heart was racing. And I consciously knew that it was a severe situation, but there wasn’t ever panic.”
“I think my body just went into survival mode,” she said, explaining that the extensive emergency response training that all Air Force pilots receive kicked in, helping her remain calm in a difficult situation.
After going over possible options with support personnel, Bye made the decision to belly land the plane, something the aircraft was built to be able to do if necessary but is still a risky move.
In that moment, the cockpit canopy on Bye’s aircraft suddenly separated with what she described as a loud pop followed by an even louder rush of wind that sounded like roaring thunder. As Bye lowered her seat to shield herself from the wind blast, she knew that she needed to act.
“It is time to get this jet on the ground,” Bye remembered saying over the radio, her mind made up. “My jet was literally falling apart around me,” she recalled, adding that she “didn’t want anything else to come off.”
Though the Air Force does not train its pilots to do this, Bye was not completely unfamiliar with this kind of landing. Not only did she know another pilot who made a gear-up landing, but during her first operational assignment as an A-10 pilot at Osan Air Force Base in South Korea, she belly-landed a jet in a simulator.
That said, pulling something like that off in a simulated training environment is quite different from having to do it in the real world, when life and limb are on the line.
“When I made the decision, I knew it was just like, this is game time,” Bye remembered thinking at the time. “I have to do this, and I only get one shot at it.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I have never been so focused on a landing in my entire life,” she said, recalling “there was hardly anything familiar about that approach and landing.”
She received guidance from her wingman, director of operations, and others, helping her avoid various potential hazards, but nothing really looked or felt the way it normally would, making landing a challenge.
“About to touch down, that was the first time I realized that it was actually a pretty dangerous and severe situation,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was back on the ground though that it crossed her mind that “something absolutely terrible could have happened,” she said. In flight, there simply wasn’t time for that kind of thinking.
Observers told Bye that when her plane touched down, sparks went flying. Unsure if the fuel lines were still intact, she got out as fast as possible once the aircraft slid to a stop, executing emergency egress procedures.
Back on the ground after that rough landing, “it took me a while actually to process what was happening,” Bye said. “My adrenaline was still up for like the rest of the day, and I did not really sleep because I was just trying to process it,” she recalled, “but it didn’t really hit me initially.”
“It didn’t really truly hit me until almost a year later when I was unfortunate enough to listen to the tape,” she said, explaining that “hearing my voice when my canopy blew off actually caused a significant emotional event. I was like, ‘Wow, that was actually kind of traumatic.'”
‘Meant to be in the Air Force’
When talking to Bye about her military service, it is very clear that this 29-year-old pilot from North Carolina is all in for the US Air Force, but her first choice, which was inspired by her grandfather’s service in World War II, was actually the Navy.
“I wanted to fly an F-14 Tomcat, and I wanted to take from of a carrier,” she said, recalling learning about the jet from a recruiter. “It is a very classic, like ‘Top Gun’-type pipe dream, but that’s what originally got me started wanting to fly.”
Aside from the fact the Navy stopped flying Tomcats, swapping them out for Hornets, there was another problem. “The Navy did not want me,” Bye said. “It turned out I wasn’t meant to be in the Navy. I was meant to be in the Air Force.”
Bye commissioned into the Air Force in 2015 straight out of the United States Air Force Academy, where she first flew.
The first aircraft she flew was a small Cirrus SR22, but “flying did not come natural,” Bye said, explaining that although the program offered cadets the opportunity to fly solo, she “did not show the skill required” to do so during that program.
Her first ever solo flight was in a DA20 in Colorado during Air Force pilot training, and the experience, she said, “was so much fun.”
“It was so cool to be in the Rockies and getting to fly around by myself. It was so surreal and gave me so much confidence,” she said. “It is so funny saying that now because I fly solo every day, but back then, when I hadn’t done it before, it was just, I don’t know, my adrenaline had never been higher in my life.”
Bye’s interest in the A-10 began when she was a student at the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School, where she first learned about this “awesome” jet “that was just like a tank killer.” Later, at the academy, a professor who had worked as an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base in California when the aircraft was first going through testing furthered that interest.
But what really sold her on the jet was a mentor, now a senior leader at Moody who flew and still flies the A-10 today. “He told me so many war stories,” she said. “And the ones that stuck out to me were when he got to talk with the guys on the ground that he helped protect.”
“The rush of emotions I felt listening to him, I was just like ‘Yep, that is what I want to do,'” Bye said. “Like shooting the gun is cool, but supporting the men and women on the ground who are in a lot more of harm’s way than I am, that was how I wanted to serve.”
“As a cocky cadet, I was just like, ‘Yeah, I want to go fast. I want to blow things up.’ But that was really when I found what I wanted my career to be, just serving the men and women on the ground,” she said.
The A-10 was first introduced in the 1970s and is the first Air Force plane that was specifically built for close-air support missions and engaging ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. In conflicts, the A-10 has been a saving grace for troops on the ground.
Bye said that she still gets excited about dropping weapons, firing the plane’s powerful cannon, and flying, even if she sometimes wishes her slower-moving close-air support plane could fly a little bit faster, but that essential support mission is “absolutely” what she loves most about the jet.
‘Can’t imagine flying anything else’
The unfortunate incident in spring 2020 could have easily shaken Bye’s confidence in herself as a pilot, as well as in her jet of choice, but she was back flying a week after the accident.
“When it first happened, I, of course, started Monday night quarterbacking myself, asking: What could I have done better? What did I do wrong? Did I cause it to happen?”
As these questions swirled around, Bye reached out to other pilots in her community who had been through stressful events, and they provided the support and reassurance she needed.
Bye is the only female A-10 pilot in her squadron, but, she explained, “it is not very often that I actually think about the fact that I’m the only woman. I’ve been incredibly blessed with the people that I work with, and I never feel isolated.”
Talking about when she first got back into a plane after the incident, Bye said, “I was nervous in the sense of like, I did not want that to happen again, but it also built my confidence so much.”
“I was like, ‘Bring it on. If I can land gear up, I can handle whatever this flight is going to bring,'” she said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous. I definitely was nervous, but it wasn’t enough to keep me out of the cockpit.”
She also said that the unusual incident gave her added confidence in the A-10, a tough jet built to take a beating.
“That situation actually just showed me how reliable the jet is,” Bye said, explaining, “Yes, something went wrong, but it was still reliable. The jet was put together well enough that I was able to land it in the condition it was in. If anything, it gave me more confidence in the jet.”
She said that she still loves the A-10, telling Insider, “I can’t imagine flying anything else.”
In November, Bye flew her mishap A-10, tail No. 995, for the first time since the Air Force maintenance and repair teams finished putting it back together.
Reflecting on her many unique experiences, she said, “I didn’t know that I would love flying, but I love it. I think being a fighter pilot is absolutely the coolest job in the world.”
Read the original article on Business Insider