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Air traffic controller at Kirtland AFB credited with saving CV-22 crew, aircraft

Woman receives coin from Air Force officer.

Wendy Smith, left, an air traffic controller at the Albuquerque International Sunport/Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., receives a coin Jan. 8, 2021, from Lt. Col. Brett Cassidy, 71st Special Operations Squadron commander, right. For her actions Nov. 10, 2020, Smith is credited with preventing a "catastrophic failure" of a CV-22 that could have claimed the lives of the six crew members aboard and possibly destroyed a $90 million aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Cochran.)

Three Airmen and a civilian woman pose for a photo at Kirtland AFB, N.M.

Wendy Smith, second from right, an air traffic controller at the Albuquerque International Sunport/Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., receives a coin Jan. 8, 2021, from Lt. Col. Brett Cassidy, 71st Special Operations Squadron commander, right. For her actions Nov. 10, 2020, Smith is credited with preventing a "catastrophic failure" of a CV-22 that could have claimed the lives of the six crew members aboard and possibly destroyed a $90 million aircraft. Senior Master Sgt. Joshua Moore, 71st SOS superintendent, left, and Lt. Col. William Mendel, 71st SOS operations officer, second from left, also attended the presentation. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Cochran.)

air traffic control tower at Kirtland AFB, N.M.

The airport traffic control tower at the Albuquerque International Sunport/Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Wendy Smith, an air traffic controller at the Albuquerque International Sunport/Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., received a coin Jan. 8, 2021, from Lt. Col. Brett Cassidy, 71st Special Operations Squadron commander. For her actions Nov. 10, 2020, Smith is credited with preventing a "catastrophic failure" of a CV-22 that could have claimed the lives of the six crew members aboard and possibly destroyed a $90 million aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Cochran.)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

An air traffic controller working in the tower at Kirtland Air Force Base/Albuquerque International Sunport is credited with saving the lives of six U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircrew members assigned here and a $90 million aircraft.

Wendy Smith received a coin Jan. 8, 2021, from the 71st Special Operations Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Brett Cassidy, for her actions on Nov. 10, 2020.

The 71st SOS commander said that on that flight, the CV-22 students were in the end phase of their training, with their focus on operating under low-light conditions, using night-vision gear, and doing full “brownout” landings, where they don’t have any visibility of the landing zone.

“It’s a pretty complex mission set, so most folks aren’t really thinking about issues on departure out of here,” he said.

Smith, whose parents are both retired air traffic controllers and whose husband is a controller at Albuquerque approach control, was working in the tower that night, and saw something amiss with the aircraft.

“It requires experience to know that something’s wrong. She’s been up there for 12 years – that’s almost the entire lifespan of the Osprey aircraft. She’s probably one of the few people here with the experience to recognize that something’s just not quite right,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy described the events and their aftermath.

“They were taking off on a night tactical sortie. On climb-out, the air traffic controller called the aircraft commander on the radio – ‘Hey Dusty 73, your right prop-rotor looks weird,’ she said. The crew looked out the window, and usually the three prop-rotor tip lights are in a perfect line, showing that everything is in sync, but they could see that one of the blades was not. That was enough. They came back in, landed, got a new aircraft and went back out. The maintenance team downloaded the information, and that blade was vibrating three times its limit. They did some inspections, and found a pitch link bearing that controls the blade pitch was falling apart. It had probably another 45 minutes to an hour left of life at the rate it was breaking down. If the aircraft had continued not to report, and the aircrew hadn’t noticed the vibrations, it would’ve been a catastrophic failure. That would’ve been a loss of the aircraft and crew.”

After being impounded for inspection and maintenance, the CV-22 aircraft involved was repaired and rejoined the 71st SOS fleet for student training.