FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 5, 2018) - Nearly 48 years to the day after safely landing his aircraft following a catastrophic engine failure, a retired master Army Aviator finally received recognition for his skill and courage in the cockpit.
Brig. Gen. David J. Francis, commanding general, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center and director of Army Safety, presented Charles Coverley, 78, of Melbourne, Florida, the Broken Wing Award during the 2018 Aviation Senior Leader Forum here February 1. According to Army Regulation 385-10, The Army Safety Program, the DASAF awards the BWA to aircrew members who minimize or prevent aircraft damage or injury to personnel during an emergency situation.
"It's really fitting that this is where I started my aviation career, to be able to come back and have a general make the presentation," Coverley said.
One of 12 siblings born in Turks and Caicos, a series of islands in the British West Indies, Coverley emigrated to the United States in 1964 under a permanent resident visa. With the escalating conflict in Vietnam, he registered for the draft but began considering full-time service after several months living in Washington state.
"I knew nothing about the military at that time," Coverley said, explaining that his brother-in-law, who was serving in the Air Force, inadvertently helped guide his decision with a discussion on enlistment commitments. "The Air Force was four years of service, the Navy was four, and the Army was three. I chose three."
Shortly after attending basic training at Fort Ord, California, and advanced training at Fort Eustis, Virginia, Coverley served the first of two tours in Vietnam as an aircraft electrician. While there, he applied and was selected for rotary-wing flight training, then split between Fort Rucker and Fort Wolters, Texas. He deployed for his second tour in Vietnam as a UH-1C pilot quickly following flight school graduation and eventually earned 32 Air Medals there.
It was during his next assignment in Germany, however, that Coverley experienced the situation that would lead to his Broken Wing Award. During a 30-minute flight back from a maintenance test at a neighboring installation, the engine on his MEDEVAC UH-1 blew and suddenly lost power.
Coverley, the only pilot on the flight, immediately autorotated the aircraft and landed in a nearby field. Neither he, his maintenance sergeant nor his crew chief were injured, and the aircraft suffered no damage other than the blown engine.
Training, Coverley said, was the key to successfully handling the emergency.
"The training really paid off for me," he said. "As soon as it happened, I knew exactly what to do. I was thinking, 'You've got to sit this thing down, hopefully in one piece.'"
Incredibly, this particular situation was Coverley's fourth autorotation. During flight school, he was flying with an instructor pilot when their aircraft suffered an engine failure. The IP took control of the aircraft, autorotated, and landed safely. Coverley also survived two shoot-downs in Vietnam by autorotating, which he again credited to rigorous training.
"With a single engine, you're committed," Coverley said of the UH-1.
Although Coverley's chain of command nominated him for the BWA while still assigned in Germany, his awards packet was denied due to an administrative routing error. His commander passed the packet to Coverley with instructions for resubmitting later, but it was soon lost in the shuffle of PCS moves and new assignments.
Then, in fall 2017, Coverley rediscovered the paperwork while searching for a file for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He contacted the USACRC, which administers the Army's safety awards program, and was surprised by not only the packet's quick approval, but also Francis' invitation to personally present the award in front of the Army's senior aviation leaders.
"It was an honor to give Mr. Coverley this long-overdue recognition," Francis said. "His story represents everything good about our aviation training and the commitment of our aviators to always fly the aircraft, regardless of circumstances."
Coverley, who retired in 1988 after 24 years of service, said his return to Fort Rucker served as a reminder of how far Army Aviation has come since those early days of Vietnam.
"Aviation wasn't a branch at that time, and older commanders considered us aviators as prima donnas," he said. "We were in a situation where we really didn't have much representation for promotions. Now you (aviators) have somebody working for you."