MINOT AIR FORCE BASE While the Minot Air Force Base seven-man crew B-52H Stratofortress, HAIL 13, and their Barksdale AFB, La., wingman, HAIL 14, were flying over Alaska earlier this month, they received a call for help from the Anchorage Air Traffic Control Center. The whereabouts of a small Cessna plane had become unknown after its pilot became disoriented after flying into bad weather.
Because the pilot dropped too low in altitude, ATC was unable to communicate with him over the radio, leaving him completely alone in the Alaska sky.
Capt. Andrew J. DesOrmeaux, B-52 pilot with the 69th Bomb Squadron at Minot AFB, described the call they received over the radio from ATC asking for their assistance.
Unaware of the events ahead of them, a Minot Air Force Base seven-man B-52H Stratofortress aircrew, HAIL 13, shown in this photo by Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld, and their Barksdale wingman, HAIL 14, received a call for help from the Anchorage Air Traffic Control Center, after the pilot of a small Cessna plane became disoriented after flying into bad weather.
"They called and said they had a pilot over the radio squawking emergency and had completely lost contact with him," said DesOrmeaux. "They asked if we could try and find him and make contact. We didn't know if he was still airborne, or if we would find a crash site."
HAIL 13 and its crew were about 200 miles away from the Cessna pilot's estimated location when they got the distress call. However, before committing to help locate the pilot, the crews of both jets needed to ensure their own well being.
"The first thing we did was calculate our fuel to make sure we had enough," said Capt. Joshua M. Middendorf, 69th Bomb Squadron aircraft commander of HAIL 13. "We also had to ensure our wingman, HAIL 14, would have enough fuel to make it back to Barksdale."
After ensuring they indeed had enough fuel to make the trip, HAIL 13 headed directly west in search of the Cessna pilot.
One hundred miles into their detour, HAIL 13 was able to locate and make contact with the pilot. He was flying low to the ground through a valley surrounded by rugged Alaska terrain.
"Because we were so high up, we were able to relay messages between him and ATC," explained Middendorf.
Communicating between ATC and the pilot, the HAIL 13 crew relayed the weather ahead of the pilot and his best shot at finding the nearest airport.
As the pilot approached Calhoun Memorial Airport in Tanana, Alaska, HAIL 13 was able to turn up the brightness of the airfield lights over a common traffic advisory frequency, guiding the pilot safely to the ground.
"It was in the middle of Alaska on a Sunday night, there was no one there," said Middendorf. "We were probably his only chance at communicating with anyone. After our flight ATC personnel contacted our base and from their perspective, we saved his life."
Although both crews flew hundreds of miles off course, they did not allow the detour to compromise their mission.
"Something the 69th has been really mindful about is saving fuel," explained DesOrmeaux. "Because we were so diligent about being fuel efficient early on, it was no problem to go out there, fly back on course, and still make everything on time."
The fuel saved by the crew of HAIL 13 in the beginning stages of the mission allowed them to fly faster back to their original course, putting them back on schedule. Not only did they meet schedule, HAIL 13 and their wingman were able to complete every mission checkpoint, resulting in a successful mission.