Capt. Mark Barker, a C-141 pilot with the 459th Airlift Wing, had just taken off on a flight returning to the reserve unit's home at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, Md., when he heard some of the most dreaded words for any flier.
"Pilot, we've got a fire in the back," Master Sgt. Rodney Meyer, the load master, called into the intercom.
"That's the nightmare of nightmares for pilots," Barker, of Fredericksburg, said in a recent interview.
Actually, it wasn't a fire, but it was almost as bad. Highly volatile hydraulic fluid mist had filled the cargo section, where two dozen passengers were riding. One of the plane's hydraulic systems had lost pressure, and the landing gear would not lower.
Despite the chaos and danger that marked the ensuing minutes, Barker managed to get 32 passengers and crew members--and the plane--safely back on the ground.
Last month, at a Pentagon ceremony, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, presented Barker with the prestigious Kolligan trophy for outstanding airmanship during the Feb. 6, 1998, in-flight emergency. Barker is the first C-141 pilot to receive the trophy and the first reservist to be recognized since 1985.
The flight from Travis Air Force Base in California came at the end of a four-day training mission for teams from the 459th Aeromedical Evacuation. Aboard were 13 aeromedical evacuation crew members, 11 space-available passengers and the eight-person C-141 crew. The mission also was serving as a check flight for Barker, who was trying to qualify as a flight commander.
Minutes after taking off, a crack developed in a hydraulic line. The crew initially mistook the mist that quickly filled the cargo area as smoke.
After getting the reports of fire and loss of hydraulic pressure, Barker stopped the plane's climb, but he already had retracted the landing gear and flaps. When he tried to put the landing gear back down, nothing happened.
In the back, there was chaos. One spark could trigger the hydraulic mist into an explosion. People were gasping for air and donning oxygen masks. Senior Master Sgt. Joe Robinson and Master Sgt. Willie Epperson handed out yellow oxygen bottles, which were quickly emptying.
One of the travelers, a woman who was making her first flight in order to visit her gravely ill brother, was shrieking with fright into a crew member's intercom microphone, making it difficult for Barker to communicate with the crew. She clawed at one of the crew members, gouging his arm.
The flight examiner, Lt. Col. John Czabaranek, checked on conditions in the cargo compartment and reported back to Barker. "It's bad," he said. "Get on the ground now."
In the confusion, Barker still was operating under the impression that the rear of the plane was on fire, and was desperate to get the plane down. "I'm thinking, 'Dammit, they're burning up back there,' " he said.
Tech Sgt. Hosie Tart came to the rescue, using a long pry bar to lower the main landing gear manually and lock it in place.
With that, Barker brought the plane down on a wet runway at Travis with a 20-knot crosswind. One tire blew and six more were flattened as Barker struggled to control the plane as it rolled down the runway. Finally, the C-141 skidded to a halt, and the passengers and crew evacuated the plane, high-fiving each other when they were finally safe.
Barker said his crew deserves all the credit. "They were brave," he said. "They were professional and cool. All I had to do was fly the aircraft."
Barker, incidentally, passed his check ride to become a flight commander with an "outstanding" grade. "What a hell of a thing to do as a check ride," he said.
Mystery Laid to Rest
Harriet Gowen was a Red Cross worker who served during World War II as a recreation specialist at a military hospital in New Guinea. And 2nd Lt. Harold Wurtz was an Army Air Force pilot assigned to the Far East Air Force.
On May 12, 1945, a P-47 Thunderbolt piloted by Wurtz and carrying Gowen as a passenger took off from an airstrip in Nadzab, New Guinea, and disappeared.
Last week, more than 54 years after they went missing, the remains of Gowen and Wurtz were laid to rest in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery.
A horse-drawn caisson drew the casket to the grave site, where Wurtz was given full military honors. Gowen's niece, Ann Freeman, of Greensboro, N.C., was presented with a folded Red Cross flag.
"Even after 50 years, it was sad," said Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
Family members think Gowen and Wurtz, who were both single, were friends who had gone for a joy ride, according to a recent story in the Greensboro News & Record.
The P-47 is a single-seat plane, but there is room for a passenger to fly piggyback if the back seat cushion that doubled as a parachute were removed. The plane may have run out of fuel, according to the story.
Wreckage of the P-47 was found by villagers in New Guinea three years ago and the remains eventually were recovered and identified as belonging to Gowen and Wurtz.
Red Cross officials believe Gowen is the first Red Cross worker to be buried at Arlington who did not have direct military connections, Alexander said.
"We're glad to have one of our own back," she said.
Solomons's Winning History
One of the little-known aspects of the Washington area's military history is its role in training for the amphibious landings that helped win World War II.
More than 68,000 servicemen from the Navy, Marines, Army and Coast Guard trained at the Naval Amphibious Training Base at Solomons Island in Calvert County. Many went on to land in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal.
Last weekend, thousands of people visited the island for the second annual "Solomons: Cradle of the Invasion" commemoration. The two days of festivities included historical exhibits and reenactments featuring Marines hitting the beach with flame-throwers.
The anonymity of the Solomons base's war role may also be history. The success of the commemorations is such that organizers plan to continue it as an annual event.
Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at email@example.com via e-mail.
CAPTION: Marine reenactor Justin McKinney sits atop an amphibious vehicle at Solomons Island.
CAPTION: Marines hit the beach in a reenactment of World War II training at Solomons Island.