Close call: Navy pilots recount avoiding crash off aircraft carrier

Last March, a Navy radar plane attempted to land on the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier. The arresting wire, a cable meant to slow down the plane upon landing, snapped.

Instead of lurching to a halt, the 45,000-pound turbo prop went off the front of the ship, completely disappearing from sight.

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A U.S. radar plane about to disappear below the runway of the airctaft carrier USS Eisenhower

U.S. Navy

“We’ve had some close calls but that was the really really close call,” said Lt. Matt Halliwell, the pilot.

Unlike most carrier aircraft, the radar plane has no ejection seats. The only way for the three men aboard to escape was to crawl through an overhead escape hatch.

“It’s kind of rolling the dice at that point,” Halliwell said.

Lt. Cmdr. Kellen Smith was in sitting next to Halliwell in the cockpit as their plane went off the end.

“I already executed procedures so I was bracing for impact at that point,” Smith said.

The third member of the crew was sitting at an instrument panel in the back of the plane. His only hope of getting out was though the escape hatch in the top of the plane.

The plane disappeared from view for four full seconds, but the crew’s actions in the first second saved them.

Smith opened the escape hatch and pushed the plane’s flaps down to give it more lift. Halliwell pushed the throttles to full power and retracted the landing gear to decrease drag.

“It was pretty quiet which was probably for the best since we were just able to focus on what we needed to do,” Halliwell said.

“Once we started climbing away it took a moment for us to realize and say, ‘Hey are we OK? Yep, we’re OK,’” Smith said.

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Due to some quick thinking, the plane’s crew was able to regain speed and take back to the sky

U.S. Navy

The plane regained speed and took back to the sky. The pilots eventually made it back to base.

Eight crew members aboard the Eisenhower suffered broken bones after the arresting wire snapped.

An investigation blamed faulty maintenance for the incident, but credited the flight crew with “phenomenal airmanship” that averted what could have been a tragedy.

Two days later, Halliwell and Smith flew back to the carrier again.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.