Air Force U-2 pilot receives top safety award

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
A pilot who recovered a crippled U-2 during a night training mission received the Air Force's most prestigious flight safety award here June 1.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented Lt. Col. Joseph Santucci, the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron commander at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy for outstanding achievement in airmanship and flying proficiency.

The award honors the Air Force pilot who has demonstrated superior skill in coping with a serious in-flight emergency with potentially grave consequences.

General Schwartz described award winners such as Colonel Santucci as possessing "airmanship, extraordinary skill, alertness, ingenuity ... and even a touch of luck."

During a U-2 aircraft training mission on Feb. 12, 2009, Colonel Santucci encountered an in-flight emergency at about 52,000 feet in a situation that looked bleak, General Schwartz said.

When Colonel Santucci turned off his autopilot on descent, the nose of the aircraft violently pitched forward. He immediately grabbed the yoke, but the plane continued to dive. Only by pulling the yoke tightly to his chest was he able to keep the plane level.

Holding the manual control with both arms, he began a slow descent and, coordinating with his chase car pilot and the supervisor of flying, he was able to safely recover the U-2 aircraft.

The award is named for 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., an Air Force pilot declared missing in the line of duty when his T-33 Shooting Star aircraft disappeared off the California coast Sept. 14, 1955.

Koren Kolligian II, nephew of Lieutenant Kolligian, as he has in the past, attended the ceremony.

He said the trophy has "brought his family together in a wonderful way," enabling them to pay tribute to the tradition of the Air Force.

Colonel Santucci said he was humbled by the award, and credited his squadron mates with helping him through the ordeal safely.

The incident was indicative of the dedication, skill and courage that all Airmen exemplify every day, he said.

"This is not just about me and that night, but about the amazing skills required by our Airmen every day," Colonel Santucci said. "Effective flying means not just survival in combat or adversity, it's about every one of our Airmen returning to terra firma regardless of the challenges of weather, technology, or enemy and being ready to fly again."

The colonel, a 1994 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate with about 700 flying hours in the U2 and more than 2,800 flying hours overall, praised fellow Airmen, U-2 drivers and all combat aviators, saying he was proud to be part of the unique Air Force mission.

"That we offer lethal persistence in airpower despite hostile conditions is what distinguishes us from every other Air Force on the planet," Colonel Santucci said. "It's extremely humbling and awesome to be a part of it."