MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- During a routine exercise over Alaska, a seven-man B-52H Stratofortress crew from here, call sign HAIL13, and a B-52H crew from Barksdale Air Force Base, call sign HAIL14, received a call for help from the Anchorage Air Traffic Control Center Nov. 13. The whereabouts of a small Cessna aircraft had become unknown after its pilot became disoriented while flying through bad weather.
Air traffic control was unable to communicate with him over the radio because the pilot dropped too low in altitude, leaving him completely alone in the Alaska sky.
"(Air traffic control) called and said they had a pilot over the radio squawking emergency and had completely lost contact with him," said Capt. Andrew J. DesOrmeaux, a 69th Bomb Squadron B-52H Stratofortress pilot. "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."
HAIL13 was approximately 200 miles away from the Cessna pilot's estimated location when they got the distress call. Before committing to help locate the pilot, both aircraft crews 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, the 69th Bomb Squadron aircraft commander of HAIL13. "We also had to ensure our wingman, HAIL14, would have enough fuel to make it back to Barksdale (AFB)." After ensuring they both had enough fuel to make the trip, HAIL13 and HAIL14 headed west in search of the Cessna pilot.
One hundred miles into their detour, HAIL13 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 air traffic control and the pilot, HAIL13 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, HAIL13 communicated over a common traffic advisory frequency to get the brightness of the airfield lights turned up, effectively guiding the pilot safely to the ground.
"It was in the middle of Alaska on a Sunday night, there was no one there," Middendorf said. "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 in the beginning stages of the mission by HAIL13 and HAIL14, allowed them to fly faster back to their original course, putting them back on schedule. In the end, HAIL13 and their wingman were able to complete every mission checkpoint, resulting in a successful mission.