Aircraft incident cues Airman instinct
By Staff Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode, 115th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 30, 2015
MADISON, Wis. -- He heard commotion from the crowd. Something was about to go terribly wrong. He popped his head outside the bunker he was in and as he made his way around the corner, the earth shook and smoke poured into the sky.
It was a pilots' worst nightmare.
Instinct kicked in as he watched his buddy's feet take off into a fast sprint. Rather than running himself, he fumbled for his keys, jumped in his truck while his cousin, Don, jumped in the other side, and off they went at lightning speed -- toward the flame.
"We skidded to a stop and were the first two to get there," said Lt. Col. Ben West, 115th Fighter Wing pilot. "The right wing broke free. The left wing didn't break off. The left wing stayed attached and it stayed on fire."
As fuel was draining out of the attached left wing, and the fire continued charring the side of the plane, there was only one thing on West's mind, and that was to get those people out of there. When Maj. Michael Bracki, 126th Air Refueling Wing pilot, arrived on foot, he also sprang into action.
"By the time I got to the wreckage, they had already started pulling people out," Bracki said. "I assisted Ben and Don by getting the survivors away from the fire and administering triage, stabilizing the passengers, and passing the injury assessments I had made to the paramedics once they arrived on scene."
While Bracki was working on people outside of the plane, West went inside to get the last passenger, knowing very well that the rest of the plane could explode at any moment. When he got inside, he realized the guy in the front of the plane was pinned in.
"I reached over the seatback and got under his arms and tried to pull," West said. "He just wasn't going anywhere. When I realized he was unconscious I started slapping him and trying to wake him up. I couldn't get any response out of him and I wasn't making any headway."
As thoughts were racing through his head, West knew he had to make a judgement call.
"I thought, if I can't get him out, then I need to get out and start putting the fire out," West said. "So, I left the airplane."
Once outside, West saw one of the Oshkosh plane marshal vehicles pull up. He knew there was a fire extinguisher on the vehicle.
"I grabbed the fire extinguisher, pulled the pin and was getting ready to spray the wing, and that's when the fire trucks pulled up," he said.
West backed away and let the firemen do their job. After the fire was out, they were able to cut the last passenger out of the aircraft, leaving only his pinned-in shoe behind.
When all was said and done, the three men, who volunteered their time to put on pyrotechnics during the 2015 Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in convention, got a bit more than they bargained for on July 22.
Although neither Bracki nor West would accredit their Air National Guard backgrounds to their actions that day, both agreed their training did not hurt the situation.
"I don't know if the Air Force training is what I would point to as far as getting me going initially, but I certainly used my Air Force triage training once I got there," Bracki said. "I didn't stand in one place and watch the airplane burn, wondering if there was anything I could do. I knew there was something I could do because of my training."
Bracki is glad his instincts jumped into play when they did.
"The memory of this accident has been a pretty rough one to have," he said. "To see something that I love so much cause pain and injury is hard, but to know that there was something that I could have done and didn't do, would be 10,000 times worse."
The lesson Bracki wanted to share was this: if the opportunity to help fellow man arises, then do whatever is possible to help.
"After talking to Ben about this, he said that seeing me run like Forrest Gump toward the wreckage is what spurred he and Don into moving," Bracki said. "You will never know the effect your actions will have unless you take them. If my taking off running got Ben and Don moving, and all three of us got to the plane and started pulling people out and helping together as a team, then I'm glad I started running."