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By Ron Whitney - Have you ever witnessed something so extraordinary, so surprising, and so incredible that you just had to sit back and ask yourself, “Did I really just see that?” Have you ever been around when a normal, routine flight operation went bad, nearly tragically bad? Have you ever had the opportunity to see a side of a coworker that you really did not expect to? Well, I have. The subject of this Pilot Profile piece, somewhat reluctantly, is a man I met many, many years ago while we were Instructor Pilots at Ft. Rucker, Paul Richtmyer. 

My first impressions of Paul were fairly unremarkable. Quite, conservative, knowledgeable, team player, occasional jokester, are all words or phrases I would use to describe him, were I asked.   We first met while instructing Aeroscout students during the combat skills phase of flight training. In those days it was not uncommon to be saddled with three students, a 1.5-hour syllabus per student, per day. It did not take a great many months of this routine to reach what we affectionately called “IP Burnout”. When the leadership discovered an IP who had reached “that point” the reward was to be transferred to the night platoon, Bat Flight. Flying and instructing flight students at night were what we termed “a break”. A maximum of two students, 1.0-hour syllabus, and shorter work day, not at all bad once you had gotten into the reverse schedule. Once you got into the routine, it was a good job. Enough of an introduction let me get on with the real story.

The routine of flying nights at Ft. Rucker in those days was fairly simple. Brief your students, preflight, and then go about the business of training. When your student had reached the end of their training period, you normally would terminate their flight at a refueling point, or stagefield. It was during one of these “routine” refueling/student swap stops that things got a little less routine.

The standard practice during hot refueling operations is that the aircraft get in line and proceed to one of two or three refueling points, in turn. Once your turn comes up your student, who has been occupying the right seat, exits the aircraft, grabs a hand held fire extinguisher, and acts as a fire guard while the refueler fuels the aircraft via a “closed circuit” refueling system. Closed circuit is supposed to mean that there is very little chance of fuel spillage, the optimum for safety purposes. Actually, if everything is working correctly the fuel nozzle will automatically shut off if it is disengaged from the aircraft fuel receptacle. Foolproof, we thought.

On this summer night in 1988 the refueling operation at Brown Stagefield was going along like it always had, smoothly. Back then we flew “doors off” in the OH-58 during the warmer months. The Instructor Pilots had a practice of trying to arrive at the refuel point ahead of their peers in an effort to avoid the wait and get to that next student. On this particular night Paul had arrived at refuel slightly ahead of me, I was two aircraft behind. While were waiting our turn it was common to make use of that time debriefing the student who was about to finish their training period. It was while I was in the middle of the debriefing that a large flash illuminated the entire area, a tell tale sign that something had done terribly wrong. It was one of those times when the sheer impact of what is unfolding freezes you. 

With his flight student standing outside the aircraft monitoring the fueling operation the refueler took it for granted that the fuel nozzle would shut off automatically when he pulled the nozzle from the aircraft receptacle. No doubt it had worked a thousand times before, this time it didn’t. When the refueler removed the nozzle JP-4 fuel spewed all over the place. The fueler’s first move was to point the nozzle up, toward the aircraft exhaust ports, throwing a wall of now ignited fuel over the top of the aircraft and down the other side, where Paul was sitting. The fueler’s next action was to bring the nozzle downward and to his right, which resulted in fully dowsing the student and lighting him on fire. Witnessing this was almost surreal, I could not immediately believe what was unfolding before me.

The student immediately dropped and began to roll, just like he was trained. Unfortunately he was on the tarmac, not much on the ground to assist with putting out the fire. In a panic, he stood up and began to run from the aircraft. Meanwhile, with a wall of flames to his immediate left, Paul shut down the aircraft, closed the fuel valve, and exited the aircraft through the flames. He then ran to the student, knocked him to the ground and extinguished that remaining flames. Fire trucks, first responders, Medevac aircraft all quickly followed. The aircraft was total loss.

Many years later I ran into Paul Richtmyer quite by accident. Actually, I had a little difficulty recognizing him; he’d aged a bit. We had the opportunity to do a little catching up, tell a few stories, and rehash the events of that night so many years ago. I know well how the effect that experience had on me; I could not imagine what that had to be like for him. Toward the end of our reunion I asked Paul if he would agree to let us make him the subject of one of our Pilot Profiles. The reluctant hero, as expected, declined, that was just his way. It was a year later, when I informed Paul “I’m just going to write it anyway”, that he agreed to answer a few questions. As is Paul’s practice, some things he’ll answer, some he won’t. I respect that.

Paul Richtmyer is a retired U.S. Army Warrant Officer who holds a Commercial Instrument Rotorcraft ticket. He has flown in excess of 4500 hours, of which a little over 1100 is night vision goggle time. His hometown is Longwood, Florida; he is married and currently is employed as an EMS Pilot with Air Methods.

Education: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, BS, Professional Aeronautics with a minor in Aviation Safety.

Military Experience: 5 years with the Airborne Infantry (2/75th Rangers, 82nd Airborne Division), 16 years in Army Aviation (Pilot, Safety Officer, Instructor Pilot, Standardization Pilot).

Aircraft flown: TH-55A, UH-1, OH-58A/C, OH-58D, and BH-407, AS 350

Hobbies: Fishing, dirt and road motorcycles.

Most memorable flight: Catching on fire at refuel

Instructor who made the most difference: They all had an impact; I learned something from each one.

If you could share one bit of advise to a new pilot, what would that be….”Think before you act, don’t get overwhelmed, and manage your cockpit workload.”

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t include an appropriate end to this story, complete the “after action” report if you will. Well, the student who caught fire that night survived and went on to graduate Warrant Officer Flight Training. Good news for him, the safety equipment, nomex flight suit, gloves, flight helmet all worked as promised. He only lingering injuries were to the unexposed skin areas and second degree burns around his torso, where the nylon survival vest melted to his flight suit.  As for Paul; a few days after this extraordinary night everyone in our unit was assembled for a meeting that was to be attended by the Commanding General of Ft. Rucker, MG Rudolph Stoic. At this meeting the full details of the event were detailed and MG Stoic presented Paul with a “Safety Coin” from the U. S. Army Safety Center.

If you were to finish reading the above paragraph and conclude that the presentation of a “Safety Coin” didn’t quite measure up to the standard expected of such heroic actions, you would not be alone. Paul Richtmyer acted the way you would expect him to, just go quietly about his business.

Posted in: Human Interest

Comments

Stephen JP Ingley
# Stephen JP Ingley
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 3:40 AM
Well written Ron. I salute Paul Richtmyer and all the other Army Aviators that have served and served proudly, professionally, and safely. JP
Gunny
# Gunny
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 7:06 AM
Excellent article Ron. Serving as an SI on a "47" I had 2 occasions like that, one under goggles & one during the day. Both causes were from a shear pin in the D-1 nozzle. TB

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