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Marine pilot was sure he was going to die after mid-air collision with an F-35

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U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Michael Wolff, a KC-130J Super Hercules pilot with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), receives the Distinguished Flying Cross from Maj. Gen. Bradford J. Gering, 3rd MAW commanding general, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, May 25, 2022. The Distinguished Flying Cross is the highest award for flying and was presented for heroic actions during an in-flight mishap from 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Rachaelanne Woodward)

Erika I. Ritchie

Los Angeles Daily News

As a boy, Marine Corps pilot Capt. Michael Wolff was thrilled by movies such as “Star Wars” and “Top Gun.”

Being a military pilot would be a “cool job,” he thought, and dreamed of flying and one day experiencing his own exhilarating action, he said.

And he has in his eight-year flying career, but it was during a routine training flight over the Salton Sea on Sept. 29, 2020, when he ended up in an aerial life-and-death struggle not many movie scripts could replicate.

For landing his KC-130J Super Hercules and its crew safely after it was struck by an F-35B Lightning II during that aerial refueling exercise, Wolff, 32, was recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The award is the Pentagon’s highest for “extraordinary aerial achievement” and an aviator’s second-highest medal for bravery.

Wolff’s co-pilot, Maj. Cory Jones received the same award and the plane’s crew received other recognitions of aviation achievement. They are part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Jones is now stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

The midair collision in the skies near Ocotillo Wells, just west of the Anza-Borego State Park, was witnessed by people on the ground who reported a booming crash and a large fireball. The $100 million fighter jet was lost, but its pilot ejected and had only minor injuries.

“Very violent air crash”

Wolff, with his crew of seven aboard the Super Hercules known as Raider 50, had two missions during the training, refuel two F/A-18 Hornet fighters and two F-35Bs, which are the Marines’ newest and most sophisticated fighter jets.

A support plane with a similar wingspan to a 737, but shorter and stubbier, the Super Hercules was flying at 17,000 feet, prepared to hook up with the aircraft. The Marines use the probe-and-drogue system, which puts the burden on the pilot to get their plane’s refueling probe into a “basket” surrounding the fuel connection with the refueling plane.

“The receiver comes to us,” Wolff said. “There’s a 90-foot hose with a basket behind us and they plug into our basket with their hose. Both were in formation to receive.”

After one F-35B tanked up, something happened that caused the jet to strike the Super Hercules. While the investigation is complete, its findings have not been made public.

“He hit us beneath the right wing,” Wolff said. “It took off engine three and four and a propeller, and it also hit the fuselage, including where the landing gear is located.”

An 800-gallon external tank that separated from the Super Hercules on impact exploded in the air. While Wolff didn’t see that happen, he got a report over the radio from one of his crew, who had been in the window watching as the F-35B got closer and closer.

“In 1.2 seconds, there was a very violent crash,” Wolff said. “For a few seconds, I thought, ‘This is probably it.’ It felt like a wing had come off.”

The impact knocked the pilots’ headsets off.

“Everything that wasn’t strapped down was flying around and it pushed us hard against our restraints,” Wolff said. “A second later I reached for the flight control and they were still working. That was pretty incredible.”

Shrieking alarms, flashing lights

Instantly, Wolff and his crew, despite the initial shock and chaos, fell back on their training fundamentals: “Aviate, Navigate and Communicate,” Wolff said.

In his eight years in the cockpit, Wolff has encountered other emergencies. He’s also trained extensively in flight simulators on what to do in a bird-strike situation and other possible emergency scenarios.  But none of that training included multiple crises at one time, he said.

With warning lights flashing in the cockpit, shrieking alarms and outside air rushing into the hole torn into the fuselage, Wolff said he and his crew locked into what they’ve been taught as the plane began a dramatic descent.

“We had to maintain airspeed, so the plane was controllable,” he said. “And, figure out where and in what configuration to land.”

Wolff made a plan with his crew and communicated his intentions to traffic control.

In audio obtained from traffic controllers, Wolff’s voice appears calm: “L.A. Center! L.A. Center! This is Raider 5-0 declaring an in-flight emergency.

“We have two engines out and we are leaking fuel and might be on fire. In an emergency descent at this time. Raider 5-0,” he proceed to layout for the controllers on the ground.

With partial control of the aircraft, they went into a controlled descent, he said, using the power provided by the remaining operating motors.

“We were in a descending left turn aiming toward Thermal due to the impact and the previous flight plan,” Wolff said.

Thermal is a small community southeast of Palm Springs with a small airstrip.

When the plane landed, it hit a wet cauliflower field that Wolff said provided a “soft landing” on which the plane slid for 300 to 400 yards before coming to a stop.

As his crew exited the plan, Wolff breathed a sigh of relief, he said. “I’m in shock about what happened and in shock that we all walked off the plane.”

No procedure for this emergency

Retired Marine Col. Charlie Quilter, a decorated fighter pilot who flew in Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, understands flying. For decades, the Laguna Beach resident flew the F-4 Phantom and has focused on military history since his retirement.

Quilter said Marine aviators are in a class of their own and, though he said there is no set procedure that Wolff could have relied on to safely bring the crippled plane down, he’s not surprised that Wolff’s training gave him a foundation for remaining calm and in control.

There is an old axiom in flying that the two most-feared in-flight emergencies are fire and structural failure,” Quilter said. “Here it was the latter, and maybe it was both. Simply keeping the aircraft upright and preventing it from flipping into a deadly spin was definitely ‘distinguished flying’ in my view, let alone getting it back onto earth in one piece.

“The pilot kept his cool, fell back on his training as a naval aviator and saved his aircraft and all aboard,” Quilter said. “Peacetime awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross are extremely rare, but this is one of the situations where it is appropriate.”

Jamey Federico, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and AH1 Cobra helicopter pilot who is decorated with a Bronze Star and the Air Medal-18 for flying in combat over in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed that Wolff and his crew demonstrated “extraordinary airmanship.”

After 22 years of active duty and 17 years flying, Federico, who now serves on the Dana Point City Council, said he knows only one pilot who received the Distinguished Flying Cross during that time. It was for flying in combat in Iraq.

“We just don’t give out the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Federico said, adding that Marine Corps is generally conservative when handing out awards and personal decorations.

“This is what we train for and military flying is dangerous business,” he said of the crew’s training that helped make the emergency landing a success.

Now, he said, it will be Wolff and his crew who are role models for other pilots and crews.

“It’s ingrained in the Marine Corps culture that everything we do, the mistakes we make or what we do right, we learn from that,” Federico said. “You can never have enough experience and sometimes you learn by proxy from fellow pilots and air crews. Any time something unique happens, you have to take advantage. So much more when the outcome is positive like this, and you learn what made them successful that day.”

Since the collision, Wolff and his crew have been up in the air again, and Wolff has told his story to every pilot in his squadron.

“This is survivable,” he said is the message he wants other aviators to understand. The airwing will continue to use the midair collision as a case study about “how things can go right.”

Wolff, who commissioned into the Marines in 2013, said while he appreciates the recognition tremendously, he’s more thankful for the emergency’s outcome.

‘”I’m happy to be here and thankful to be flying,” he said. “And, thankful how everything worked out.”

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