Navy awards pilots whose actions saved a plane after aircraft carrier mishap

Three Navy pilots who saved an E2-C Hawkeye aircraft from crashing into water after a cable snapped aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower were awarded the Armed Forces’ Air Medal for valor aboard the ship, the Navy said August 11.

Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Browning, Lt. Cmdr. Kellen Smith and Lt. Matthew Halliwell, assigned to the “Screwtops” of Airborne Early Warning (VAW) Squadron 123, were presented the award for reacting in time to prevent the loss of an aircraft by maintaining control during the mishap which took place off the Virginia coast on March 18.

The award is presented for heroic actions or meritorious service while participating in aerial flight.

Halliwell was piloting the Hawkeye when it touched down on the flight deck and caught the wire. As they began to decelerate, the arresting cable snapped and they found themselves rolling ever closer to the edge of the landing area.

“It all happened in about eight seconds,” said Smith, who has been flying for 12 years. “While we were decelerating we heard a loud snap. When we would normally be coming to a stop, we weren’t.”

“Our years of training kicked in and we reacted on instinct. I slapped back the ditching hatch (Hawkeyes do not have ejection seats) as we cleared the deck and began a deep settle (significant descent). I would guess we were about 10 feet from the water before we lifted back up, but Lt. Smith expertly kept us climbing away. It was a sigh of relief when we were back in the air. It helps to know that at the critical moment, all we practice for this scenario actually works. The experience has made me much more confident in my training.”

Smith described the events of March 18, a day that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

The Screwtops’ Executive Officer, Cmdr. Darryl Martin, stated the decoration was more about showing appreciation for the training the pilots received throughout their careers than for what they did to save the aircraft.

“Due to their years of practice and trust in vetted procedures, the crew was able to develop skills and survive the dangerous situation they were presented,” Martin said. “If the right lessons were not captured from the past or if the crew had not paid attention to them, they would not be here today. I am humbly grateful for their proven professionalism, resilience, and respect for the dangerous environment in which we find ourselves daily.”

Four months after that day, Halliwell has moved on to be an instructor for up-and-coming Hawkeye pilots. Smith and Browning are still flying with the Screwtops.

Smith said there was never a doubt he would be behind the controls again.

An investigation into the accident pointed to human error and improper maintenance as the main reason for the mishap which resulted in various, non-life threatening, injuries for eight sailors.

The investigation found that the maintenance personnel missed “critical steps” while working on an arresting gear engine.

Ike and its carrier strike group are currently deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.