U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) rotary instructor Barb Gordon was the Navy’s first to receive the Army’s Broken Wing Award at a ceremony June 6 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.
Highly regarded and rarely awarded, the Army gives the Broken Wing Award to aircrew who have minimized or prevented loss of life and aircraft through outstanding airmanship during inflight emergencies. Gordon’s award marked the first time the Army presented the Broken Wing outside the service.
Col. John Jones, Commanding Officer of the Army’s Redstone Test Center (RTC) in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, presented the award to Gordon, a former naval lieutenant commander, who recovered the UH-60L Black Hawk while training a test pilot under instruction Oct. 5, 2016.
During the single-engine test technique with one engine at idle, the helicopter suffered failure on the opposite engine. Gordon had fewer than five seconds to recover the aircraft and experienced rates of descent between 9,000 and 12,000 feet per minute. According to the investigation, the mishap would have been catastrophic if not for the immediate actions taken by Gordon and former student Sylvia Grandstaff, now chief warrant officer 3 and a test pilot at RTC.
“After recovering the aircraft, the flight back to Pax was the longest seven minutes of my life,” Gordon recalled. “Sylvia and I were fully prepared to put the aircraft down anywhere; had we not followed the exact procedures we’d just briefed, we might have been picking pine needles from the bottom of the aircraft if we survived.”
“Barb and Sylvia displayed that flight test can be done safely without negative outcome,” Jones said. “The Army appreciates your training, mentorship and expert airmanship.”
Grandstaff also received a Broken Wing Award for her extraordinary skill during the incident at USNTPS. She attributes the aircrew’s survival to the nature of flight test rather than skill. Gordon and Grandstaff had discussed the exact risk of engine failure and emergency procedure during both preflight and inflight briefings before the test demonstration.
“It’s the culture of flight test that made the difference on the flight Barbara and I were on,” Grandstaff said. “Had it been just any other training flight, it might have gone differently.”
Both Gordon and the UH-60L continue to fly students during rotary technique training at USNTPS, the only domestic source of rotary test pilots and the Army’s dedicated test pilot school.
Today, Gordon has students fly a bit higher, adding ample space between her aircraft and the ground. What is left of the mishap’s failed engine sits on Gordon’s desk and underlines the extreme level of risk—and importance—of the developmental test pilot, whose objective is to bring aircraft to the point of failure to ensure the safety and success of service members on the flight line.
The inherently risky discipline requires just that, plus extraordinary skill in the cockpit and aptitude as an engineer.
“When people ask if we changed how we do things after the mishap at USNTPS, the answer is no,” Gordon said. “We survived, because test pilots plan for unique and unusual situations like the engine failure. That is what USNTPS gives students; without immediate critical thinking and risk management, things can get exponentially worse.”
Brittany Dickerson is a Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Public Affairs Officer.