Capt. Taylor Bye was descending for a strafing run and about to unload rounds from her A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft's 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun last year when the training mission went sideways.
Her cannon suffered a dangerous malfunction, damaging the plane's landing gear, popping off panels and jettisoning the cockpit canopy. Despite the damage, Bye was able to bring the busted-up A-10 back to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, performing a successful belly landing.
Bye's leadership presented her with the Air Combat Command Airmanship Award on May 5 for outstanding performance and dedication to safety during the incident, according to a news release.
"My initial reaction was to climb away from the ground and then look at my engines," Bye, a 75th Fighter Squadron pilot and chief of standardization and evaluation, said in the release. "The amazing thing about the A-10 is, even though all these things happened, I had two perfectly working engines and hydraulic systems."
Bye was the flight leader for the exercise that day, the release states. She flew slowly so her wingman, Maj. Jack Ingber, also of the 75th, could catch up and assess the damage to her plane.
As the wingman, Ingber was tasked to "think of everything that [Bye] is not because she has a massive handful of an airplane that is falling apart," he said in the release.
Another pilot, identified only as the 75th's director of operations, took off from Moody to act as Bye's "chase" aircraft, closely following her and monitoring the surrounding airspace while on approach.
To reduce her wind exposure without the canopy, Bye lowered her seat, but that made it difficult to see the runway below, she said.
"I thought, 'Where's the ground, where's the ground?' ... I was holding my breath at that point," she said. "I guess I was nervous the whole time, but I didn't have time to think about being nervous. My job was to take care of myself and to take care of the jet."
"This doesn't happen very often in the history of the A-10," said Lt. Col. Stephen Joca, 75th Fighter Squadron commander. "What's most important is preventing total loss of the A-10 or, even worse, her life."
It wasn't the first time an A-10 has had to crash-land because of a gun malfunction.
In November, then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to Maj. Brett DeVries, an A-10 pilot with the 107th Fighter Squadron at Michigan's Selfridge Air National Guard Base, for executing a successful emergency landing without his landing gear or canopy.
That landing took place in 2017 when DeVries, then a captain, was flying with other A-10 pilots over the Grayling Air Gunnery Range in the northern part of the state.
During one of the passes, his gun malfunctioned, creating turbulence that blew out the canopy. Minutes later, he belly-landed at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, east of the gunnery range.
At the time of DeVries' mishap, the service said it was "believed to be the first time in the roughly 40-year history of the A-10 that a pilot had to land with no canopy and with the landing gear up."
Capt. Tisha Yates, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command, didn't rule out the possibility of Bye also receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross in the future.
"The ACC Airmanship award and Distinguished Flying Cross are not mutually exclusive, and receiving one does not prevent a member from being able to receive the other," she said in an email. "The decision of what award or decoration a member receives is at the discretion of local leadership, taking into consideration the requirements for the award, the actions of the member, the responsibilities of the member's rank, and the overall circumstances of the event the member is being recognized for. While two situations may appear similar, leaders' perspective at different locations of what type of award an act of bravery merits can differ."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.