ARLINGTON, Va. --
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presented the 2018 Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy to Capt. Matthew T. Heath, a T-38 instructor pilot assigned to the 71st Flying Training Wing with Vance Air Force Base, at the Pentagon June 27.
Using his instinct, training, judgement, flying experience and proper energy management, Heath flawlessly landed his aircraft after unknowingly receiving contaminated fuel, safeguarding the life of the student pilot on board.
On Nov. 18, 2017, during a refueling stop, a civilian line-worker inadvertently introduced Diesel Exhaust Fluid into the fuel tank of Heath’s and the student pilot’s T-38C Talon. After receiving contaminated fuel, the pair continued on their cross-country student training sortie en-route to Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport, Texas.
Takeoff, departure and cruise were uneventful, but while flying a circling approach at Rick Husband, the student pilot attempted to add power and noticed that both engines were unresponsive to throttle movements.
Heath recalls the moment when he saw the throttles move but nothing happened with the jet.
“My stomach immediately dropped.” said Heath. There’s something definitely wrong here... airspeed is slowly decaying off... I started to maneuver to a base. My whole thought process was to keep assessing (the situation).”
Heath, recognizing that they were in an energy-deficient situation and that landing on the runway would be difficult if not impossible, immediately took control of the aircraft. He directed the student to prepare for ejection, but as Heath assessed the situation, he realized that although he was unable to maintain flying airspeed without descending, he may be able to save the aircraft by carefully balancing air speed and rate of descent. He maneuvered the aircraft to the point of transition for landing and extended the flaps to maintain lift as the airspeed decayed.
Heath managed to hold the aircraft on a landing profile by keeping the landing gear up until a half-mile final where he had enough energy to assure landing.
Col. Corey A. Simmons, commander, 71st FTW recalled that this procedure is not taught in any formal training course, or discussed in the flight manual, but Capt. Heath’s superior judgment and flying experience assisted his decision making.
On landing rollout, the aircraft’s fire warning system alerted Heath of a fire in the right engine compartment, which unknown to Heath at the time, had already caused significant damage to the aircraft. Heath immediately shut down the affected engine, stopped the aircraft, shutdown the other engine and commanded an emergency ground egress.
During the ceremony, Goldfein stated that Heath’s superb analysis and outstanding skill in response to this life-threatening emergency resulted in the safe recovery of two Airmen and an $8.2 million aircraft.
During his remarks, Heath took a moment to recognize his wife, Katie, for her support.
“The second hardest thing I had to do that day was call Katie and let her know that something’s not right and I'll be coming home today,” he said. “After I worked up the nerve to call (Katie), I still remember the words you said to me on that day.
“There was a lot going on but it was very reassuring to hear you (Katie) say, ‘see you at home.’”
The award was established in 1957 to memorialize 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 California coast Sept. 14, 1955.
Since the award’s inception, the Kolligian family has attended and sponsored the award presentation ceremony.
“Our family has been honored to be invited to the Pentagon every year, meeting remarkable pilots, spending time with them and their families, sharing stories and creating friendships.” said Kolligian’s nephew, Koren Kolligian II.
Each year since the award was established in 1957, one or more members of the Kolligian family has made the trip to take part in the presentation and to meet the honorees. “Capt. Matthew Heath, on behalf of our family, I offer congratulations and sincere thanks,” said Kolligian. “What may have been another day in your life, we view as an act of heroism resulting from the Air Force’s commitment to education and training, and your skill, composure and resilience under pressure. This award celebrates each of those values and qualities, and reminds us all what it takes to be a pilot in the United States Air Force.”