JOINT BASE SAN ANTION-RANDOLPH, Texas — An unprecedented action, quick thinking, and Texas high school football saved the lives of an instructor pilot and his student, Jan. 25, 2016.
Thirty minutes into an hour-long training flight Maj. Tim Menges, then an instructor pilot with the 560th Flying Training Squadron, saw an ominous black object to his right and it was headed straight for the nose of his T-38C Talon.
Capt. Matthew Pianalto, Menges’ student in the back seat, had done something strange two minutes earlier.
“He had called out visible terrain features for navigation if the plane lost all its navigational control systems. I’ve never heard anyone do that in flight during one of our pilot instructor training sorties,” Menges said.
“I have the aircraft!” Menges said over the intercom to Pianalto.
The 414 mile-per-hour impact with a turkey buzzard left the plane’s canopy covered in blood. There was a hole and a dent where the air navigation system antenna had been. The aircraft instantly lost all electrical power and there was an eerie silence when the crew would have at least heard their own breathing.
To the world, tail number 404 had vanished.
Menges climbed to a higher altitude to prevent the plane from crashing and to gain a better vantage point, but clouds and the bird’s blood on the windscreen made it difficult to see where to fly the plane.
“My mind was racing and there was so much adrenalin it seemed like an eternity,” Menges said.
He jotted a note on a piece of paper to signal Pianalto he wanted to land at Victoria Regional Airport which is 110 miles southeast of Randolph. He couldn’t see the town.
Because of “temporal distortion,” Menges had lost track of time and he wasn’t confident the plane had enough fuel to continue with any delay. He considered giving the command to bail out and he again signaled Pianalto with the pink checklist for that least preferred course of action.
“It was the first time in my career I had seriously considered ejecting,” Pianalto said.
Fifteen minutes after the impact and at seven thousand feet above the ground, the crew spotted a football stadium and in one end zone was the word “Gobblers” and in the other was written “Cuero.” Cuero is a city 28 miles north of Victoria and with that landmark, Menges used a compass and his map to head for Victoria.
“Thank God for Texas high school football,” Menges said.
In the fiftieth minute of the flight, Menges and Pianalto reached Victoria Regional Airport but they were still in danger. Two planes were in front of their crippled aircraft on a landing approach and Menges couldn’t talk to the control tower.
“I rocked the wings to signal distress to the tower and both planes cleared the flight path,” Menges said.
Menges successfully landed the plane just over an hour after the flight began.
After inspection from maintenance personnel a few days later, the crew found out their plane had only four minutes of fuel remaining.
In his career, Menges has had four bird strikes, but complete electrical failure is rare, he said.
Pianalto, now an instructor pilot for the 25th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, said he considers himself lucky.
“He [Menges] did an absolutely incredible job recovering the aircraft safely given the extreme circumstances,” Pianalto said. “It was one of those worst case scenarios and he handled it perfectly.”
For his quick and safe action, Menges was presented an Air Education Safety Well Done award. On June 8th, just before he was assigned to a new instructor pilot position at Beale Air Force Base, California, he received an Air Force Single Sortie Air Medal.
He has also been nominated for other awards related to this incident.
Story by Randy Martin