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Spangdahlem pilot rescues charter plane over Germany

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Amaani Lyle
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Familiar to most laymen by way of television and movies, ‘Mayday’ is the radio call signal that, when real, can make a pilot’s mouth go dry and his stomach cramp.

So it went for civilian charter pilot Naim Fazlija, who on Nov. 15 had to make such a call to German radar controllers while flying a Piper Chieftain twin engine plane over Germany’s hazy skies en route from the Netherlands to Geneva, Switzerland.

After complete loss of the aircraft’s electrical system at 11,000 feet, Mr. Fazlija and his co-pilot, Artan Berisha, remained visibly calm so as not to alarm their five passengers.

“This was the first time in my 10 years of flying that I had to make a distress call like this -- I was like a bird without eyes,” the Kosovar pilot said. “There was absolutely no power in the plane except for a hand-held radio and a small global positioning system.”

Knowing he’d never be able to risk flying in such low visibility 200 miles farther south to land as planned in Switzerland, the Piper pilot said he knew he needed help -- immediately.

Meanwhile, Maj. Pete Olson, 52nd Operations Support Squadron chief of A-10 wing weapons and tactics and 81st Fighter Squadron pilot, was preparing to return to Spangdahlem Air Base after completing the day’s training flight with three other aircraft. The team was engaged in upgrade training between Frankfurt and Ramstein when Major Olson received the distressed aircraft signal from a German ground radar controller.

“I was a little worried when I got the call, but I knew I had to act fast,” Major Olson said.

The major cleared his team to return to base and put his 12 years of pilot training to work. Within minutes, he arrived to the airspace over Baumholder, Germany, where he attempted to make contact with the Piper aircraft on the radar controller’s search and rescue frequency.

“Follow me,” Major Olson said, crackling over Mr. Fazlija’s faulty radio. Though he knew help was on the way, the Piper pilot continued to fly in triangular points, as he could barely hear the major’s instructions and could no longer even track his own speed.

Hope, much like Mr. Fazlija’s ability to see from the plane seemed to dwindle, until the charter pilot spotted something.

“I didn’t even see the A-10 coming,” Mr. Fazlija said. “His plane just appeared under mine like a rocket climbing. It was definitely something you’d see in the movies!”

In true wingman fashion, Major Olson positioned his plane around the Piper anywhere from a close-route formation (10-20 feet) to as much as a 3,000-foot trail during the recovery. Mr. Fazlija said the major’s maneuvering signs were a critical factor in leading his plane beneath the weather to safety at nearby Hahn Airport in Germany -- just 15 minutes later.

Mr. Fazlija said the fifteen minutes seemed to elapse in a blink for the Piper pilots, but still allowed ample time for him to ponder his mortality and that of his passengers.

“I didn’t care that I might die,” he said. “I could only think that the lives of my co-pilot, passengers and possibly people on the ground could be cut short by my actions.”

Major Olson’s supervisor said the feat is no surprise to him.

“Certainly the outstanding airmanship and skill displayed is what I’d expect from Pete every time he flies,” said Lt. Col. John Cherrey, 81st Fighter Squadron commander. “This shows the type of decisive decision making we get from our daily combat training.”

Mr. Fazlija said the brush with disaster has only bolstered his love of flying and his gratitude to an unexpected wingman.

“I truly appreciate Major Olson and the entire U.S. Air Force,” Mr. Fazlija said. “His professionalism led us to safety. I knew we were in good hands.”