BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Flights around the world with a full crew in a large aircraft, carrying cargo in aid of war-related and humanitarian efforts, amount to pretty much an average day in the life of Air Force Capt. Ryan Hawk.
In April, however, one such routine trip could have taken a nasty turn were it not for the training and experience of a well-prepared crew, Hawk said.
Just after takeoff, the aircraft, a C-5 Galaxy, hit a flock of 30 to 40 seagulls. The collision caused enough damage that the 167th Airlift Wing crew members needed to make an immediate response.
Their quick action and ability to land the craft with no injuries earned them the 2013 Earl T. Ricks Award for Outstanding Airmanship during the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in September.
This distinguished award is named after Maj. Gen. Earl Thornton Ricks, who was the chief of the Air Force Division, National Guard Bureau.
Ricks served a lifetime in the Air Force, beginning in the 1940s, earning many awards and commendations throughout his career.
Presenting the award was the director of the Air National Guard, Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke III, a three-star general who is the highest ranking member of the Air National Guard.
The opportunity to receive such a prestigious award from a three-star general was certainly a "once-in-a-lifetime experience," Capt. Hawk said in an interview Monday with The Greeneville Sun.
A Greeneville High School graduate, Hawk's parents and grandparents still live here, making this his home-away-from base.
He is the son of Chris and Christine Hawk. His grandparents are Maria Sponcia and Betty Hawk.
PILOT OF STRICKEN PLANE
Hawk was pilot and aircraft commander for the flight that day in April, but he described the events that took place with much praise for teamwork and experience, rather than taking any singular credit for the safe landing.
"Every person on there had something to do with safely recovering the plane," he emphasized.
"We were extremely heavy weight. Other than that, it was pretty routine. Take off, carry our cargo and some [military] people," he said.
"The weight was close to 800,000 pounds. For us, we're able to do that, that's fine. But if you lose an engine at that weight, it's a bad deal."
When the large flock of seagulls took flight after the plane's takeoff, losing an engine was exactly the scenario the crew faced.
"The engine on the left side of the airplane immediately had massive vibrations," Hawk said. "It was training reaction, I guess. We've been trained for this similar to that in [simulation].
"Nothing ever prepares you for what your heart is going to do. Your heart rate goes up ... but you go into action.
"Nothing can ever tell you what's going to happen when you know that you only have a few minutes to make a right decision and put it back on the ground."
With everyone on such high alert, giving it their all to safely land the aircraft, Hawk said it was perhaps the smoothest landing he's ever experienced, despite being an engine down and landing in the opposite direction on the overseas runway at a location that remains classified.
BRAKES AFIRE ON LANDING
Once the plane had landed, the brakes caught fire, and members of the crew focused on getting the 22 people off the airplane, managing to save both the cargo and the plane in the process.
"I think the big takeaway is, because of our good training -- the military and the Air Force training -- we were able to save the aircraft and save the people.
"Obviously, all of us would like to believe that it was all due to us, but we all know better than that.
"We know without the years of training and the months of training we'd had before that, and day-in and day-out in the [flight simulator] and local flying, it probably wouldn't have turned out the same way."
The crew had all been in mission operation status for at least a few years, providing helpful experience, he added.
As for Hawk, he has been flying the C-5 Galaxy, a four-engine jet for outsized cargo, since the beginning of 2008.
He joined the Air Force after college and has progressed through the ranks.
"I could serve, and I could also get some training that I wanted to do," he said. "It's a win-win."
He has recently advanced from aircraft commander to being an instructor, he said.
His interest in flying first came from his father's taking him as a young boy to the Atlanta International Airport to watch the planes take off and land, he said.
PARENTS INFORMED LATER
His parents did not learn about the April incident until several months later, they said.
"It was quite eye-opening to see that our son may have not have been here in April," Christine Hawk said of finally learning of the incident and seeing pictures in June.
"We are very proud of Ryan and his service to our country. We are thankful for the abilities God has given him to perform in such a situation as this."
Ryan Hawk concluded that fate simply must have been on the side of the crew that April day.
"It is apparent that our training and intuition acted correctly," he said, "but The Man Above obviously has other plans for the individuals on that plane."