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‘Surreal’: Air Force Major relies on military, language training in aircraft crash rescue

Maj Coleman’s training, both as a military officer and in the local languages, came in very useful as they moved the co-pilot in the chaotic scene.

Maj Coleman’s training, both as a military officer and in the local languages, came in very useful as they moved the co-pilot in the chaotic scene.

Maj Coleman’s training, both as a military officer and in the local languages, came in very useful as they moved the co-pilot in the chaotic scene.

Maj Coleman’s training, both as a military officer and in the local languages, came in very useful as they moved the co-pilot in the chaotic scene.

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

One minute, you’re having a well-deserved beer after a long hike. The next minute, all hell breaks loose, and you find yourself in the middle of a dangerous crisis. How do you react? What do you know that could be the difference between life and death?

Military training was key for Maj. Braden Coleman, a C-17 pilot currently in training at the Joint Military Attaché School in Washington, DC. Braden is a Foreign Area Officer, which means he spent 47 weeks at the Defense Language School in Monterey, Calif., learning Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, and honing his cross-cultural skills. The culmination of his training was a cultural immersion in South Asia in 2017. He was sent overseas to visit several countries, practice his language abilities, and “get the lay of the land,” he said.

Maj. Braden Coleman met Sadhus, Hindu mendicant ascetics, during his cultural immersion to Nepal in June 2017.

During the trip, he scheduled an excursion to hike to Base Camp Mount Everest in Nepal. He and a Nepali guide had just returned from the days-long hike to Lukla, a small town known as the gateway to Mount Everest. Because of its location, Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport was a popular place for travelers to fly into and out of at the start of their hikes. Challenging visibility, fast-changing weather and the frequent thick cloud cover there led the History Channel to rate Tenzing Hillary Airport as the “world’s most dangerous” in 2010.All this was far from Coleman’s mind, as he and his guide celebrated their successful trek to Base Camp Everest with beers at a hotel overlooking the airport’s narrow incoming runway on the afternoon of May 27, 2017.

Maj, Braden Coleman at Everest Base Camp during his cultural immersion in May 2017

“All of a sudden, we saw all these people running,” Coleman said. “We figured out that a plane had crashed, because we saw the smoke coming up at the end of the runway.”

Coleman didn’t know what he could do, but he knew he had to do something. He set off toward the area where the plane had crashed. Photos from the incident show the difficulty of even making it to the plane – it was lodged on the side of cliff below the actual runway, and in an area of dense undergrowth. “It wasn’t like an easy walk,” he said. “We were moving down a cliff.” Complicating matters, Coleman said many of the local people were also either at the site or heading there, too. “It seemed like the whole town was there,” he said.

The aircraft was crewed by three people – a pilot, co-pilot and air hostess, Coleman said. The air hostess had been severely injured but already evacuated when Coleman arrived. The pilot had died, but the co-pilot was alive, and trapped in the aircraft. Coleman met up with the medical team, helped carry medical equipment and stretchers down to the cockpit and then retrieved axes and saws for those at the plane.

“People were using axes to chop into the plane to try and get the co-pilot out, but they had to be really smart about where to chop, because we were in a place where it was a 20 or 30-foot fall to the next cliff.”

It was starting to rain and getting colder, but even more dangerously, the aircraft was spilling oil, gas and hydraulic fluid onto the ground – with the plane’s electrical systems still going. “Planes don’t just ‘shut off,’” Braden said. And at that point, his military pilot training began to take over.

“I knew there would be an emergency checklist in the flight manuals, so I said, ‘Hey, let me take a look at this.’” First, Coleman called for fire extinguishers. He relayed instructions for shutting down the aircraft to a New Zealand helicopter pilot who was also on scene providing assistance. Someone saw flames near the flammable liquids still flowing from the plane, and the fire extinguishers Coleman had requested became critically important.

“People started scrambling up the cliff frantically trying to get away from the plane,” Coleman said. Fortunately, the chief pilot quickly extinguished the blaze. The entire town of Lukla was standing on the cliffs, approximately 20 feet away,” Coleman said. If the plane would have exploded, it would have been a very bad situation.”

After about an hour, they managed to remove the co-pilot from the plane. Their work wasn’t done – now they had to move the co-pilot, on a stretcher, up the steep cliff and over the runway to safety. “People were very frantic,” Coleman said. “They all wanted to do whatever they could to save his life, so we had as many people as we could take turns carrying the stretcher.”

Coleman’s training, both as a military officer and in the local languages, came in very useful as they moved the co-pilot in the chaotic scene. “I used some Nepali, Urdu, and Hindi and was able to communicate with the locals to tell them to slow down or stay back,” he said. The same terms that he had used with his guide on the trek to Base Camp Everest were key. “There was a lot of “slowly” and “let’s go,” both times,” he said.

Coleman also worked crowd control and directed the Nepali Army soldiers and the police to help in ensuring everyone got off the runway and the helipad. “I guess it was just that military training – knowing when to lead, and when to fall back and be the follower,” he said.

Looking back on the experience, Coleman describes the whole incident as “surreal.”

“It really hits home, because as with most pilots, we have known people who have died in plane crashes, but this was the first time I had ever been on the scene of a crash,” he said. “I hope it is my last.”