Windshield forces Columbians down
A deep, white spider web leapt across the windshield. The low rumble of engines on a Colombian Air Force aircraft was interrupted by the splintering sound of fractured glass. The pilots exchanged glances, checked safety lights, monitored their position and barked commands. Cabin pressure read normal, but the entire glass pane was split from end to end. It would be difficult to see, let alone safely fly. The aircraft had to descend. The plane radioed the control tower.
Onboard the twin-engine Boeing 767 aircraft that Saturday morning were 72 cadets from the Colombian Naval Academy, along with several supporting officers and 12 flight crew members. The cadets and staff were en route from Anchorage to Hong Kong, flying across the northern Pacific to embark on a three-month cruise aboard the Colombian Navy’s flagship Gloria. The aircraft was expected to retrieve another group of cadets who had just concluded their sea tour at the Hong Kong port.
The plane had just taken off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport early Saturday, Aug. 24, when the situation developed. The aircraft commander requested permission to emergency land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
As a safety precaution, the pilots circled for several hours to burn fuel before landing safely and taxiing to the Joint Mobility Complex on the JBER flight line.
The Colombians immediately ordered replacement parts, which arrived early Monday morning from Miami, Fla. JBER personnel facilitated the transportation and escort of civilian repair technicians to the flight line, where they installed the new glass with oversight from the Colombian air crew and members of the 732nd Air Mobility Squadron.
The mishap became an opportunity for the next generation of joint-force partners in South America. The majority of the cadets and officers had never seen an American military installation, especially one with the capabilities, mission variety and sheer size of JBER. The officers and cadets received a tour of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, during which they peered into stripped-down engine blocks, sat in the cockpit and listened to explanations from crew chiefs at the Alaska Air National Guard hangars. Many remarked they had never seen helicopters as formidable as the 20,000-plus pound UH-60.
The 517th Airlift Squadron hosted a tour of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft parked on the tarmac.
“The Colombians were most impressed with the size, capability and technology in the cockpit,” said Air Force Maj. Darwyn Klatt, C-17 pilot, 517th Airlift Squadron. “Their pilots asked the most questions. The massiveness of the airplane, its capacity -- many of our foreign partners don’t really have anything like this. Their largest craft is probably half this size.”
Senior Airman Raul Gutierrez, crew chief, 517th Airlift Squadron, offered his bilingual capabilities while hosting the Colombians.
Besides refreshing his Spanish, “It was a privilege to show foreign military visitors what an Air Force unit is capable of,” Gutierrez said.
Third-year Colombian cadet Felipe Cruz said while the group definitely wasn’t expecting to see Alaska, the chance to meet U.S. Air Force and Army pilots was eye-opening.
“The difference in the scale of operations, the ability to see what’s possible with the technology and the training, for us is great stuff,” Cruz said.
Both sides of JBER pitched in to coordinate the 90 unexpected foreign military visitors. The group was billeted in the Army National Guard barracks on Camp Carroll. Army and Air Force officers, non-commissioned officers, and junior enlisted members from force support units, dining facilities, transportation, security forces and public affairs worked late into the evening escorting the group and easing the increased flow of personnel and questions their arrival brought.
The incident has attracted attention from throughout Pacific Air Forces, showcasing an unplanned opportunity for international cooperation immediately following other, highly-coordinated exercises like Red Flag-Alaska, which concluded last week.
The Colombian jet departed early Tuesday morning.
“The aircraft commander contacted us after take-off to thank the base for being gracious hosts,” said Air Force Col. Frank Battistelli, 673rd Mission Support Group commander. “They appreciated all the support we were able to give them. Our allies would do the same thing for us if we were ever in need.”