Capt. Taylor Bye had two options when the canopy of her A-10C Thunderbolt II was ripped off during a routine sortie and the landing gear refused to deploy: eject or attempt a belly landing. Bye stayed calm and pulled off a wheels-up landing, saving herself and minimizing further damage to the plane.
In honor of the extraordinary accomplishment, Bye was awarded the 2020 Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy on Wednesday, May 11, at the Pentagon, becoming the first woman to receive the award in its more than 60-year history.
First awarded in 1957, the trophy memorializes 1st Lt. Koren Kolligian Jr., an Air Force pilot declared missing in 1955 when his aircraft disappeared off the California coast. The Kolligian Trophy recognizes aircrew members who avert or minimize injury or property damage during severe accidents, according to the Air Force.
“The day [Bye] landed with 66% of her landing gear and wind in her hair is one she’ll never forget,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said during his presentation of the award.
Bye’s A-10 started falling apart while she was descending for a surface attack ride during a routine April 2020 training mission over Georgia at Moody Air Force Base’s Grand Bay Range, according to the Air Force. The plane’s Gatling gun suffered a catastrophic malfunction as she attempted to fire it, damaging the landing gear, ripping off panels, and sending the cockpit canopy soaring through the sky.
“Looking back, I sometimes have to remind myself of what happened,” Bye said according to a news release from the service. “Everything happened quickly yet slowly at the same time.”
Bye instinctively maxed out the throttles, pitching the aircraft nose up, and lowered her seat to avoid the 350-mph wind blowing in her face. But the lowered position also made it difficult to see the runway.
“Where’s the ground, where’s the ground,” Bye thought, holding her breath. She didn’t have time to panic: Her job was to take care of herself and to take care of the jet.
Bye’s commander stressed the rarity of a catastrophic A-10 failure, according to a previous Air Force statement. Some actions were covered in an emergency checklist, but the rest was just “superb airmanship and decision making” on Bye’s part, Lt. Col. Stephen Joca, 75th Fighter Squadron commander, said.
“We don’t necessarily train for this, but the split-second decision I made was my body’s natural response,” Bye said.
Bye evaluated the damage and flew back into Moody’s airspace, followed by a chase aircraft that assisted her in her approach. She landed without injury to herself, and with minimal damage to the runway.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the ceremony for the Kolligian Trophy, but Bye was previously presented with the Air Combat Command Airmanship Award in 2021.
While the Kolligian Trophy recognizes individual accomplishments, Bye thanked her wingman, fellow A-10 pilot Maj. Jack Ingber, who helped assess the damage to her jet as she prepared to land.
“This whole experience has challenged me in many ways, but to be recognized with this honor is something I will never forget,” Bye said. “For a day that had the makings of something less than pleasant, this will definitely be the highlight I dwell on.”