Not all of aviation's heroic acts happen on the battlefield.
- By George C. Larson
- Air & Space magazine, March 2000
In the fall of each year, the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving safety in civil aviation, holds a gathering that traditionally includes a formal banquet. After the usual greetings and speeches over coffee and dessert, the group gets down to the serious business of the evening: the awarding of the Graviner Sword.
The Graviner Sword is the symbol of the foundation's Heroism Award, an honor instituted to "recognize valorous acts by civil aircraft flight crews which resulted in the saving of life and/or valuable property." Every year the foundation mails requests for nominations to its 850 members, including almost every airline in the world as well as national and international regulatory agencies. A committee of volunteers, which I chaired this year, evaluates the nominations and selects a winner. The civil aviation community's only formal recognition of people who risk their lives in the service of others, the sword is the equivalent of the military's Medal of Honor.
Last November, our committee selected a helicopter pilot named Jim Corey for the Heroism Award. In a letter responding to notification that he was to be the 1999 honoree, Corey wrote, "I am still in awe over all that is happening over this--, I didn't even know such an award existed." Most recipients have expressed surprise at their selection, perhaps because their actions came naturally to them and didn't seem to them extraordinary.
What came naturally to Jim Corey was to help a stranger in trouble. Last May Corey was hauling timber with a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter for Silver Bay Logging in Alaska. After work on May 22, Corey was aboard the company's barge, moored in Shrimp Bay, when he learned that a surveyor was stranded in the mountains with a broken leg. In pain and without shelter, the man might not survive the night.
Although it wasn't the aircraft he usually flew, Corey hurried through a preflight check of the company's McDonnell Douglas MD 500 helicopter, fired up its Allison turboshaft engine, and took off with two volunteer searchers into the rapidly darkening night. They scooted across the water to the mountainside location where the surveyor was reported to be, but they reached the area in total darkness and were unable to find landmarks that could direct them to him. Another helicopter pilot had also searched the area but, low on fuel, had returned to base in Ketchikan with plans to resume searching in the morning. But Corey feared the morning would be too late. He dropped off the two searchers who had come with him and went back for the man who had reported the emergency.
In deteriorating weather conditions, Corey made repeated flights across the open water, up into forbidding terrain, and back to the barge. The MD 500 had a lighted instrument panel, but the lights wouldn't dim. Fearing loss of his night vision, Corey decided to turn the lights off and check the panel periodically with a small flashlight. When dense fog and rain caused him to lose sight of the barge, he was forced to find a familiar spot on the shore and fly a compass heading across the water to a landing. The rescue effort had begun at dusk. By the time the injured man was found and all were returned to the barge, it was after midnight. All this was accomplished in a helicopter equipped only for daylight visual operations.
The sword Corey took home with him last November is a miniature of the one that resides in a glass case at the Flight Safety Foundation's headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. It is a huge weapon, a replica of a two-fisted broadsword used by Scottish clans during the 15th century. Although the foundation introduced the honor in 1968, the sword didn't come into being until 10 years later, when Graviner, a British firm that provided aircraft fire suppression equipment for the Royal Air Force, took over sponsorship of the award. Graviner commissioned a sister firm, the Wilkinson Sword Company of England, to forge a replica of the broadsword and conveyed it into the permanent custody of the foundation. Graviner eventually became part of Kidde Aerospace and Defense, the award's current sponsor.
In addition to the sword, all Heroism Award winners receive an honorarium, and their names are engraved on small plaques in a glass case at headquarters. In poring over the plaques, one can't help noticing the word "posthumously" adjacent to some of the names. In 1970 the foundation honored James E. Hartley, an Eastern Air Lines copilot who was mortally wounded as he disarmed a suicidal passenger. Before Hartley died, he shot and wounded the passenger seriously enough to prevent his interfering with the landing at Boston's Logan International Airport.
In 1987, Neerja Bhanot, a Pan American senior purser, was swept up in a terrorist hijacking in Karachi. The 17-hour ordeal ended in a frenzy of gunfire and explosions. Bhanot shielded some children from almost certain death and in so doing was mortally wounded herself.
Although the stories of these air disasters and the names of those who sacrificed their lives tend to fade with time, there was one airman whose actions will be remembered as long as the sarcophagus that was the Chernobyl nuclear power station stays radioactive. In 1990, Anatoly Grischenko died of the effects of the withering radioactivity to which he was exposed while flying a helicopter into the inferno to dump radiation-absorbing materials onto the molten reactor core. He did not survive long enough to attend the banquet where he would have been given the award.
The honorees who are able to attend the ceremony sometimes bring with them visible signs of the personal sacrifices they have made. In the aftermath of a fiery crash of a China Airlines jet at Manila, flight attendant Wang Wen-Hua helped 135 passengers off the airplane before exiting herself. The airplane was by that time completely engulfed; its evacuation slides had burned away. Wang jumped to safety but was terribly burned and required extensive plastic surgery. Jack Enders, president of the foundation when Wang received the award in 1980, recalls, "As the award was handed to her, the audience rose to its feet, tears streaming down--it was quite a moment." The foundation also helped Wang find medical care to repair the scars left by the fire.
In all, 33 individuals and one group (the helicopter crews who performed the original "Towering Inferno" rescue of victims of a 1972 high-rise fire in Sao Paulo, Brazil) have received the Heroism Award. In some years, mostly during the 1990s, no award was made because no act was deemed sufficient to meet the exacting criteria spelled out in the foundation's charter, which states that the judgment "is based upon degree of personal risk involved, the nature of adverse conditions and complicating circumstances, and the extent to which the act of valour was willingly beyond the normal line of duty and performance level expected of the individuals involved." What the bestowers of the sword seek to recognize, in other words, is not an act of self-preservation but an act of self-sacrifice. Wrestling a machine back to earth in a successful deadstick landing may constitute commendable airmanship, but it is no act of heroism.
Aviation has become safer over the last few decades, and the need for acts of courage on the part of airline crew members may continue to decline. Rescue flights such as Corey's may characterize the future winners. The number of lives saved has little to do with the quality the Graviner Sword is meant to honor. For anyone who has difficulty grasping its essence, just put yourself aboard Jim Corey's helicopter on that stormy night last May. Bub Niche, the surveyor who owes Corey his life, understands it perfectly.