Nellis pilot recalls hairy rescue operation after two fighters collided

With a fellow pilot’s life on the line, Capt. Greg “Fangs” Farrell knew exactly what to do as he flew his Fighting Falcon jet through the darkness over the Atlantic Ocean: Never give up.

It was a moonless night on Aug. 1, 2013 when Farrell, an F-16 pilot in the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, was participating in a training mission near Washington, D.C.

Farrell, 31, from Buffalo, N.Y., spoke last week about his pivotal role in the search-and-rescue operation during an interview with the Review-Journal at Nellis, where he’s been stationed since November 2012.

The drill for the other F-16C jets from the Air National Guard’s 113th Wing out of Joint Base Andrews, Md., was to “fly close enough to allow inspection into a target of interest cockpit,” according to the accident investigation report. That means with little illumination, and catching up to the “target” jet at 350 mph while wearing night-vision goggles, there is little room for error.

Although Farrell’s jet was about 50 miles away from the three-ship formation in this particular exercise, it was a good thing he was in roughly the same area because the unthinkable happened shortly before 10:30 p.m., suddenly turning Farrell’s training flight into an intense mission of another kind.

Two of the three F-16s collided more than 11,000 feet over the ocean. The instructor pilot’s jet had clipped the target jet, causing it to fall out of control in a slow, barrel roll.

The instructor pilot landed safely at Joint Base Andrews.

But the pilot of the target ship was forced to eject over the ocean. Leg injuries made it difficult for him to locate and climb into the tiny life raft where he could activate an emergency radio, Farrell said.

“I flew over to his location and started doing search-and-rescue operations,” Farrell said. His wingman looked from a higher altitude while Farrell flew low.

“We searched 30 to 40 minutes and didn’t hear anything,” he said. “There were thunderstorms around us and lightning was going off all over. I definitely feared the worst.”

Then Farrell heard “the best radio call sign I’ve ever heard: ‘He said, ‘Hey, I’m down here.’ It was pure joy. I started talking to him.”

Farrell called in a Coast Guard Jayhawk rescue helicopter.

A video of from the helicopter shows rescue swimmer Petty Officer 1st Class Bret Fogel swimming to the raft and deflated it so he could put the injured pilot in a litter to be winched up to the chopper.

“By the time the rescue diver was in the water I was pretty low on fuel,” Farrell said.

The loss of one F-16 and damage to the other totaled nearly $23 million. Air Force officials haven’t released the names of either pilot involved in the collision, which was blamed on an error by the instructor pilot.

Farrell said the downed pilot later thanked him, and the two met recently at a Wounded Warrior event in Las Vegas.

“He’s expected to make a full recovery,” Farrell said.

“The biggest lesson learned for me was during that 30 or 40 minutes when I was trying to find the guy, and kind of lost little hope that he was down there, my take-away is to never give up and continue looking for him, and continue to press on,” Farrell said.

Farrell was recently awarded the Aviation Safety Well Done Award. According to the award citation, he “displayed outstanding airmanship,” and his “extraordinary skill, ingenuity and proficiency reflect great credit upon himself, Air Combat Command and the United States Air Force.”

He called the search-and-rescue operation a team effort.

“I had a wingman helping me. Also the supervisor of flying, a pilot back at the base, was able to talk to the Coast Guard,” he said. “I can’t thank the Coast Guard enough for how good of an act they put on (by) being there and having the rescue swimmer in the water within a minute.

“So thanks to all those guys. And, I definitely feel good going out there flying again, knowing that they’re out there.”

Contact Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

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