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The Greatest flying Story Never Told.

In March of 2006, Lt Col Kevin Henry sat in the cockpit of his U-2 while flying a combat mission in the AOR. About 3 hours into the mission, Col Henry experienced the first pangs of what would become one of the most serious cases of decompression sickness ever survived in the history of aviation. Airmen that fly at high altitudes risk the same threat of decompression sickness as scuba divers (commonly known as the "bends"). Nitrogen that is carried in the blood at sea level starts to bubble out at extremely high altitudes. The U-2, capable of flying above 70,000 feet, exposes the pilot to approximately 29,000 feet cabin altitude. The "space suit" that the pilot wears does not protect the pilot from the effects of this Mt. Everest-equivalent cabin altitude; however, the suit does provide a pure oxygen environment and protects the pilot from 12-mile high atmosphere in the event of a loss of cabin pressure.

Col Henry's initial decompression symptoms included pains in his ankles and knees. On a scale of 1 to 10, he rated his initial pains at a "5." Over the next few hours, the pain would increase to a "perfect 10," and Col Henry would experience severe headaches, nausea, hot flashes, extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing, seizures, and visual illusions. The visual illusions included the overwhelming sensation that the aircraft was rolling over and large blind spots would appear in his field of view.

During the flight Col Henry's aircraft was monitored by an electronic tether that connected him with controllers at a ground station thousands of miles away at Beale Air Force Base, California. Although the lead controller at the ground station (the Mission Operations Commander or MOC) directs the pilot where to go and what to do during the mission, the pilot is required to fly the aircraft using the autopilot to keep the aircraft stable and on course while cruising at high altitude.

After receiving notification from the pilot that he was feeling sick, the MOC (Capt Shawn South) began witnessing erratic behavior and conversation from Col Henry. Unable to talk Col Henry through the complex programming of the navigational system during the return to base, the MOC instinctively called the Beale Command Post, who then woke the local Beale U-2 Squadron Commander, Lt Col Dave Russell. Col Russell threw on a flight suit and headed to the ground station to find Col Henry making almost unintelligible transmissions. Col Henry reported that the aircraft was "rolling over" and Col Russell could hear the alternating blare of the aircraft over-speed warning, followed by the stall warning in the background. Evidently, the decompression symptoms had degraded Col Henry's memory of how to program the autopilot to fly home; the autopilot would not engage.

Col Russell knew that hand flying the Dragon Lady at altitude was a challenge even when on top of one's game and that Col Henry was fighting for his life in a struggle to get the aircraft under control. With calm and persistence, Col Russell talked Col Henry through reengaging basic autopilot; however, the navigation system was no longer operable. The question then became how to get Col Henry, who was still steering the aircraft, back home without flying into denied airspace. Over the next 3 hours, Col Russell gave Col Henry what was most likely the longest no-gyro Precision Approach Radar (PAR) in aviation history, telling him when to bank and when to roll out (a no-gyro PAR is a rare emergency procedure used for approach and landing).

Meanwhile, Col Henry experienced a secondary emergency when his nausea caused him to throw up the chocolate pudding he had eaten at the beginning of the sortie. Throwing up in the U-2 is an emergency in itself because vomit can clog up the oxygen ports in the helmet. Col Henry knew that he only had a minute or so of useful consciousness to open up his visor and scoop the vomit out of his helmet. He barely finished this task and closed his visor as he passed out. He was later awakened by Col Russell, calmly telling him that he needed to make his final turn toward home to keep from traveling so far out over the ocean that he wouldn't have enough fuel to make it home.


After flying within gliding distance of his home base, Col Henry attempted to follow Col Russell's instructions on how to get the gear down (required for the U-2 to descend at a reasonable rate). Complicating this task was the fact that a blind spot had developed in his vision, and he could not see the gear handle nor many of the other cockpit switches and displays. From muscle memory, Col Henry found the gear handle, performed the checklist steps required for descent, and trimmed the aircraft for a gradual descent.

Meanwhile, an unusually thick cloud layer had developed over the home base, and Col Henry passed out as he entered the weather in his descent. Not hearing further responses from him, Col Russell notified the deployed U-2 squadron operations officer (Capt Jeremy Potvin) that Col Henry had gone quiet and that the deployed squadron would need to coordinate host nation helicopter support for either medical treatment or search and rescue. At the same time, the U-2 Supervisor of Flying (Capt Ralph Shoukry) coordinated with wing leadership and the host nation to scramble two host nation fighters to intercept the U-2. This resulted in a remarkable radar intercept of a U-2 that was in a slow spiral descent in the weather, requiring the fighters to perform the intercept with gear and flaps down; flying slow enough to match the U-2's slower airspeed.


The skilled host nation pilots found Col Henry slumped over in the cockpit and unresponsive to radio calls. After attempting to awaken him, by flying dangerously close to the U-2 cockpit while lighting their afterburners, the fighter pilots passed this information back to the U-2 SOF. The SOF then passed the information back to Col Russell on the other side of the planet. Col Russell repeatedly raised his voice loud enough to awaken Col Henry, and tell him to "follow the fighters." Col Henry recalled that he awoke to the popular country song "Jesus, Take the Wheel" playing in his mind, and he then followed the fighters to his home base as directed.

The ordeal was not yet over. Unable to control the difficult aircraft in his semi-conscious state, Col Henry made several low passes at the runway coming within feet of the ground and flight line buildings on several occasions (Col Henry still has no recollection of this 45-minute "air show"). On the ground, the mobile pilot (Capt Alex Castro), and the Wing Chief of Safety (Maj Kurt Stallings), positioned their U-2 Camaro chase cars on opposite ends of the runway to chase Col Henry on the numerous unpredictable low approaches he made. Lt Col Henry could not understand why his mobile pilot and Chief of Safety were screaming "Bailout" over the radio. He also could not comprehend Lt Col Russell calmly attempting to convince him that his options were running out and that he might have to "get out."



Col Henry remembers "waking up" with the aircraft in a full stall, merely feet from the ground while pointed at an aircraft bunker. As he experienced "ground rush" he executed a traffic pattern stall recovery and climbed away from the ground. This experience, coupled with the words of his fellow U-2 pilots, caused him to gather his wits enough to line up on final approach and land the aircraft with a textbook landing.

Rushing to the aircraft, Col Henry's Mobile Pilot and Chief of Safety opened his canopy and shut off his engine, only to find him unconscious, with his eyes "rolled back in his head." With the Flight Surgeons (Col James Little and Capt Christina Millhouse) believing that cardiac arrest was imminent, Col Henry was flown from the runway in a pre-arranged helicopter to a dive chamber, where he received lifesaving hypobaric treatment administered by the Flight Surgeons and the host nation medical team over the next several days.

After initial recovery, it was discovered Col Henry had suffered significant neurological damage to the right front lobe of his brain. Although able to live a normal life, he was later disqualified from flying due to his injuries. He attributes his survival to a team of Airmen that did everything just right at just the right time--from the MOC, to the calm stateside squadron commander, to the heroic fighter pilots of an allied nation, to a deployed operations officer, SOF, mobile pilot, and pair of flight surgeons. A team of Airmen joined together across the globe to get him home alive with a combat asset saved for another day.

One final note: All this happened without me, the deployed squadron commander. I was TDY the day that this happened, and I returned to base a few hours later. Every person acted heroically and exactly the way they were trained, without me being around to supervise. This fact is a tribute to their professionalism and an example of what Airmen do every day autonomously. In my humble opinion, their performance was one of the proudest moments I had as a commander and makes this The Greatest Flying Story Never Told!

Where are they now? Lt Col Henry has since retired and works in the U-2 program as a contractor. Lt Col Russell (the Beale squadron commander) completed his command and is currently working at Headquarters EUCOM. Major Shawn South (the MOC) is currently deployed to the AOR. Maj Ralph Shoukry (the SOF), Maj Jeremy Potvin (the deployed Director of Operations), and Maj Christina Millhouse (Flight Surgeon) serve in the U-2 program at Beale AFB. Lt Col Kurt Stallings (the deployed Chief of Safety) is currently deployed as a U-2 Squadron Commander. Maj Alex Castro (the mobile pilot) is the Director of Operations at a deployed U-2 squadron. Col James Little (Flight Surgeon) is now the 78 MDG/CC at Robins, AFB.


Some of the information for this article was gleaned from "Redefining Flight," the dissertation of Colonel Timothy Schultz, Ph.D., USAF, who is a former U-2 pilot and currently serves as the Commandant and Dean of the Air Force's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.



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Author:Marshall, J. Alan
Publication:Combat Edge
Date:May 1, 2010
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