Three naval aviators assigned to Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) assisted a civilian pilot Thursday night in arriving safely to the Fallon Municipal Airport.
Aviators Lt. Shawn Navinskey, Lt. Johnathan Sheater and Lt. Matthew Sullivan were on their way back to the runway at Naval Air Station Fallon when the base air traffic controllers notified them of a civilian pilot, James Epperson, in military air space.
“NAS Fallon approach told us there was a civilian aircraft in the area and he wasn’t talking to anybody,” Navinskey said. “After we told them the aircraft was a low-wing , twin engine craft, they let us know that he (Epperson) was having issues with his landing gear.”
Epperson thought he was heading to Hazen, 15 miles west of Fallon, but due to what seemed to be electrical problems and low visibility due to smoke from the Rim Fire in Yosemite, Calif., he was nearly 45 miles off course in the NAS Fallon training range.
“Whatever problems he was having, he couldn’t hear anybody but us,” Sheater said. “He asked us if his landing gear was down, and it’s a heart-sinking feeling when you know a pilot has to land and doesn’t have any landing gear.”
Epperson’s aircraft was traveling at 120 knots, or roughly 138 mph, while the slowest speed for an F/A-18 E-F is approximately 160 knots or nearly 181 mph.
“We had to come up alongside him, lead him a little bit, and then circle back to do it again,” Sheater said. “He was having a tough time staying on course.”
According to Navinskey, Epperson’s plane was somewhere in the Lahontan Mountain Range in southern Churchill County and flying at a dangerously low altitude. Furthermore, Epperson was alone in his plane and had about one hour of fuel left, so the NSAWC officers felt it was necessary to talk Epperson up to a safe altitude and get him to the municipal airport.
“If I was having a problem and wasn’t able to talk to anybody, I’d love to have somebody come help me,” Navinskey said.
Once Epperson was able to speak to the mechanic at Fallon Municipal Airport, the Navy pilots returned to the air station since they were also low on fuel. Epperson was finally able to get his landing gear down and landed safely.
“It’s a good day for all of us when we can help someone,” Sheater said.
NSAWC is the center of excellence for naval aviation training and tactics development in integrated strike warfare, weapons employment, irregular warfare and maritime and overland air superiority.
MC1 R. David Valdez is Naval Strike & Air Warfare Center public affairs officer.