The men and women at the United States Marine Corps don’t mess around. They are highly trained professionals who spend years and years mastering the techniques of flying and landing. They study all the methods and engineering that goes into manning and building planes. By the time they set out in one of those amazing pieces of hardware they know their aircraft inside and out. They have to – these planes cost millions and millions of dollars to produce. These state of the art airplanes can fly hundreds of miles per hour, perform loops, and even fly vertically across the blue skies above. They’re designed for durability and power.
Captain William Mahoney is one of those men who trained in the art of manning fighter planes. He did, however, learn the hard way that at the end of the day a machine is a machine and things can go wrong. When he went out for a routine flight he learned that this landing gear was faulty. What came next was an incredible mission that required skill, focus, and attention. In order to protect the aircraft and save his own life he had to follow directions quickly, use his own judgement, and do whatever it took to be safe. Did he do that?
Meet your captain
Ask anyone who has ever been employed in the military – training for the United States Marine Corps takes years. It requires significant time and energy to master all the techniques that are expected of you at the academy. It’s certainly not for everybody nor is it for the faint of hearted. Nobody knew that better than Captain William Mahoney when he was forced to act fast and employ his special skills to save his own life. Most of us would probably panic when put in the situation that Capt. Mahoney found himself in. He, however, knew he had to move quickly when he suddenly found himself in a dire life or death situation.
Meet your plane
Military planes sure are expensive. What may look like a hunk of metal can actually cost millions and millions of dollars to produce. They feature the most cutting edge technology and highlight just why the U.S. army is set apart from the rest. These planes can travel at hundreds of miles per hour and can avoid detection with some really impressive tech on board. Capt. Mahoney was flying a Harrier jet that day. The unique plane can achieve vertical flights and can even take off from the water. It’s one of the most impressive planes in the Navy arsenal. It took Capt. Mahoney years to master the incredibly dynamic machine.
A view from the top
The plane is an incredibly impressive piece of art. Sure – if you’re prone to claustrophobia then this aircraft may not be your thing. The pilot has to sit in a very confined space within the cockpit. How fast does it go, you ask? Well some models can fly through the air at up to 731 mph. That’s not too shabby. During his flight, Capt. Mahoney discovered that there was a problem – the landing gear began to malfunction.
The USS Bataan
The massive ship that Capt. Mahoney meant to land on is called the USS Bataan and when we say massive we really mean it. This monster of a ship can carry many aircrafts and up to 1,894 Marines at one time. This sea platform is no joke. A typical work day is predictable with routine missions and practice loops taking place all day. This day was different, however. Before he knew it, Capt. Mahoney was set to perform an amazing maneuver on this craft.
In order to avoid detection when flying through the air, these clandestine aircrafts will land on these massive platform ships at high speed. In the air they will then quickly decrease velocity to achieve a smooth landing. These experts such as Capt. Mahoney train for years to master the art of a perfect landing. By the time they go out on missions they are already pros. For Capt. Mahoney, however, this landing would be different from all the others he performed hundreds of times.
Capt. Mahoney knew something was wrong before he detailed the landing gear. As a professional he could feel it in his bones. He flew through the air at top speeds bracing for landing. He noticed immediately that his landing gear was malfunctioning. He quickly radioed headquarters and they urged him to continue his course. He turned back around in a hurry but it was no time to panic. Capt. Mahoney quickly learned that the time to act was now.
Not like the movies
What movie highlighted the coolness of working as a military pilot better than the smash blockbuster Top Gun? The 1986 action drama stars Tom Cruise as a Navy pilot studying the craft and skills required to become a top army pilot. Who could forget the iconic line: “I feel the need, the need for speed.” Soon after the film was released the U.S. Navy said that applications for the pilot program increased by 500%. Novices were eager to sign up for the life of high action and intensity.
Solving a problem
Capt. Mahoney radioed in for help and they gave him the most unusual of advice. They needed to find the solution for his problem but they couldn’t without looking at the plan itself. They ordered him to fly slowly over the platform so that the engineers could examine his aircraft and determine the next steps to do. He agreed and descended slowly over the ship repeatedly so that they could get a closer look. It was an extraordinary solution to an unordinary problem.
His worst fear
He flew over the engineers repeatedly as they examined the craft. After some time they confirmed Capt. Mahoney’s worst fear. The landing gear was faulty and it would not deploy. At first his heart raced with anxiety. After some brief panic he recalled his training and remained calm. He knew that the only way to survive was to act smart. If he attempted to land normally he would not only damage the plane but he could potentially risk a severe injury.
Changing the plan
Capt. Mahoney’s fears were confirmed but that wasn’t the time to freak out. He had a mission to complete and his own life in his hands to worry about. While in communication with the engineers and his superiors they came up with the landing plan. They set up this stool-like device, called a crash cradle, on the platform. Capt. Mahoney was told to land on with the nose of his plane on the cradle. It seemed like an impossible feat but he knew what he had to do.
Employing the crash cradle
You’re probably wondering what on earth the crash cradle is. So was Capt. Mahoney. No it’s not a bar stool nor or a chair to help you reach something too high for you. It’s a certain kind of stool designed to assist with problems just like the one the captain found himself in. When the nose landing gear fails, the stool levels the plan out so it doesn’t cause the aircraft to nose dive into the platform. Capt. Mahoney quickly learned just how it worked.
He knew that he only had one shot to get this right. His life depended on him nailing this perfect landing. There would be no second chance. He began to descend towards the platform. We can only imagine his heartbeat racing through his uniform as he watched the platform come closer into view. With all of his training it’s hard to prepare for something like this. It wasn’t a routine landing he was about to perform.
Sticking a landing
His plane inched forward and he decreased his speed as the platform grew closer and closer. This mission was proving to be harder and harder for the captain than expected. One wrong move could put his life in greater danger and could risk damaging the expensive hardware. His plane descended with the crash cradle in sight. It was now or never. He would have to stick the risky landing and prepare for the dangerous landing.
Evacuating the crew
Capt. Mahoney looked ahead and was surprised to find the entire deck cleared out. It must have been an incredibly lonely sight to see. Imagine finding yourself in peril with only seconds to act and there is nobody there around you. He didn’t know that the entire crew was ordered to evacuate to make room for the emergency landing about to take place. Typically an entire crew would be on deck working but this was a different time. It was going to be tricky for Capt. Mahoney…
Here comes the landing
No one knew how this landing would go. His colleagues looked on in shock as they witnessed an action they rarely, if ever, get to see. Tensions were high as they watched, hoping for the best and praying that all would end with Capt. Mahoney’s safe release. The quickest motion felt like ages as the anticipation ran high. Would he be able to master the landing? Would any damage happen to the plane? They looked on…
Cool and calm
To succeed in saving the plane in his life, Capt. Mahoney knew that he had to keep his cool. “At this point I had kind of forgotten that I had no nose gear and I was just focused on landing, because that’s what I had to do,” he says. “I’m at 20 feet, stabilized and I can’t see the stool. I don’t even know it’s there. I couldn’t see it coming over the ship, I remember thinking ‘oh boy this is going to get interesting.'”
Capt. Mahoney’s biggest problem wasn’t just the impromptu landing he had to nail – his entire visibility was obstructed. It was going to be more than just landing on the crash cradle, he would have to even out the plane and land it perfectly. As he narrowed in on the platform the cradle became harder and harder to come into view. This was certainly something Capt. Mahoney had never anticipated and knew that the landing could go either way.
Here we go!
At this point Capt. Mahoney was within just feet of the crash cradle. His brow was sweating from nerves. At this point all he could do was focus on sticking the connection and landing safely. All he wanted was an easy landing and to touch down on safer ground. He thought about his base and his comrades. He knew they were all watching in anticipation. Would Capt. Mahoney make it out alive? Would the plane be OK?
All eyes were on Capt. Mahoney. Nearly 1,000 Marines looked on in awe as this plane did a mission they had never seen or practiced before. This went beyond any training they had and they knew it. This was an emergency landing that was ordered and organized within a matter of minutes. They were all trained to act fast but this was something else. Capt. Mahoney was about to do something they would rarely ever see.
And in just a few seconds he did the unthinkable: Capt. Mahoney nailed the perfect landing. The nose of the plane successfully touched down on on the crash cradle. Not only was the multi-million dollar plane unscathed, so was Capt. Mahoney. Miraculously he landed totally safe. It was an incredibly stressful and scary situation for everybody on the USS Bataan but for Capt. Mahoney it was his greatest fear dodged. He proved to be a savvy and gifted Marine.
His colleagues were eager to gather around him and congratulate him on the successful landing. Capt. Mahoney sat at the helm of the wheel in disbelief. He had pulled off an incredible feat that not many others in his position may have been able to pull off. He was proud of himself and his base. Their communication was so strong and they all remained calm and because of their discipline both the aircraft and Capt. Mahoney are here today.
Safe from harm
Not only was the communication key between Capt. Mahoney and the base, the mission couldn’t have been completed without the his incredible bravery and determination. Rather than shutting down and giving in to his fear, he resisted and fought against it. He used his fear to save his life and deliver the faulty airplane for repair. He may not have realized it at then but he was a hero. Capt. Mahoney was about to be recognized for his amazing accomplishment.
It all happened so fast for the captain. He had to go beyond his training to use his senses and instinct to save his life. “I remember idling the aircraft, my main gear hitting and all of a sudden my nose dropping. It dropped more than I expected,” Mahoney says. “But at that point, I was along for the ride. It was just a pretty big relief and I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I actually got out of the aircraft.”
The highest honor
It’s no surprise that Capt. Mahoney was recognized for his incredible mission that day. He was awarded the Air Medal. He’s just glad to feel some safety after accomplishing a landing that he had never prepared for. “It was a pretty big relief,” he recalls. “I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I got out of the aircraft.” With all the recognition he received he was eager to get back out there and to serve his country.