While an honor, the U.S. Army Broken Wing Award is something most aviators would rather never have the opportunity to earn during their military careers. The criteria for this rarely awarded honor begins with an in-flight emergency situation -- but the award is then earned by demonstrating a high degree of professional skill to recover the aircraft from danger.
U.S. Army Redstone Test Center (RTC) Experimental Test Pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sylvia Grandstaff is now a recipient of a Broken Wing Award. Grandstaff not only demonstrated skill during an in-flight equipment malfunction -- it happened while she was in training at experimental test pilot school.
On October 5, 2016, Grandstaff, a U.S. Naval Test Pilot School student pilot, and Ms. Barbara Gordon, a U.S. Navy civilian instructor pilot, were conducting a curriculum performance demonstration flight. During a single-engine test technique with one engine at idle, their UH-60L suffered a catastrophic engine failure on the opposite engine that could have resulted in loss of life and destruction of the aircraft if not for the actions of Gordon and Grandstaff.
During an investigation, it was determined that rates of descent between 9,000 and 12,000 feet per minute were encountered during the autorotation. From the point of failure, the aircrew had only four to five seconds until ground impact if the appropriate coordinated emergency actions were not immediately accomplished by both aviators.
Grandstaff was awarded her Broken Wing honor during a recent visit by the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC) Commander Maj. Gen. Joel K. Tyler.
Grandstaff was honored for her extraordinary skill, judgment and technique used during the incident at training school.
"It's the culture of flight test that made the difference on the flight Barbara and I were on. Had it been just any other training flight it might have gone differently," explained Grandstaff at the event.
According to Grandstaff, during the morning flight briefing, they discussed the hazards, safety considerations, and limitations specific to that test technique. "We briefed the exact procedures we would both have to follow in the unlikely case of an engine failing. This information was included on test cards and re-briefed again in flight prior to initiating the test technique. Those procedures worked."
Grandstaff still maintains it was the procedural steps, always to be following in flight testing that saved the day, not luck or skill.
Grandstaff was on the path to become a doctor, having completed her first year of medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, when she decided to join the Army.
"The Warfighter is definitely better off because of Sylvia's decision to follow her passion and become an aviator. She's been willing to share her lessons learned with fellow pilots, and this experience was a great lesson in how important planning and procedures are in aviation testing," explained Col. John Jones, RTC commander.
The Broken Wing Award was established in March 1968. Since then, hundreds of aircrew members have been recognized with the Broken Wing Award for their extraordinary actions.
Grandstaff's experience serves as a reminder of the risk the Warfighter routinely faces in service to our nation, as well as the important role of training and testing that puts the Warfighter in the position to respond to emergency situations that, in some case, can end up saving lives.
A routine training mission could have ended much differently. But as a result of thorough planning and preparation by both herself and Gordon, who will receive her Broken Wing Award at a later date, the crew was able to land safely and carry lessons forward for other aviators.