Major wins highest aviation safety award

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
  • Air Force Public Affairs Agency, Operating Location - Pentagon
An Air Force pilot who maintained control of his aircraft despite losing 80 percent of his left wing during a midair collision, is the recipient of the 2013 Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy, Nov. 14, at the Pentagon.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented the award to Maj. Douglas Witmer, an exchange officer assigned to the Argentine air force's 4th Brigade 1st Squadron as chief of wing weapons and tactics in Mendoza, Argentina.

Witmer, who works to enhance interoperability between the United States and Argentina as an AT-63 Pampa II instructor pilot, was flying as part of a six-ship formation over Argentina, Aug. 10, 2012, at the Centennial Celebration of Argentine School of Aviation in Cordoba.

Everything seemed to be going well, until one of Witmer’s wingmen made an overly aggressive maneuver, causing the other aircraft to slam into Witmer’s. He was able to maintain control of his aircraft with most of his left wing missing and several key controls not working.

Keeping calm, Witmer said he diverted his aircraft away from a nearby crowd of spectators and the aircraft formation and instructed the student aboard his aircraft to prepare to eject.

Judging his aircraft to be damaged but airworthy, Witmer was able to avoid ejecting from the aircraft and landed at a nearby airport, which had a longer runway and greater rescue facilities.

“He has 3,000 flying hours – one of them is in an aircraft with one wing,” Welsh said at the ceremony.

According to his award citation, signed by Welsh, “Major Witmer’s quick thinking under extreme duress and his successful management of an unfamiliar language, aircraft and field, saved a valuable aircraft, two pilots and potentially hundreds of spectators.”

The trophy is presented each year by the Air Force chief of staff in the name of 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., an Air Force pilot declared missing in the line of duty when his T-33 Shooting Star disappeared off the coast of California in 1955. For the past 55 years, members of the Kolligian family attend the ceremony – this year was no different.

“We’re in awe of these remarkable feats of airmanship,” said Kory Kolligian, a nephew of Koren.

The award was established in 1958 and recognizes outstanding airmanship by an aircrew member. The crew member must show extraordinary skill, alertness, ingenuity and/or proficiency in averting or minimizing the seriousness of a flight mishap.

Looking out over the audience, consisting of dozens of Kolligian and Witmer family members, Witmer felt there was a consistent theme to the ceremony.

“The theme of today … for me … it’s family,” Witmer said. “I really and truly appreciate this honor. This is an honor I never expected.”