ABOARD THE U.S.S. PELELIU -- A captain and a corporal from Marine Attack Squadron 214, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were awarded Navy Achievement Medals on Dec. 7, from Brig. Gen. Carl B. Jensen, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 3, for their individual actions in preventing an AV-8B Harrier from injuring Marines and sailors, damaging other aircraft and falling off the flight deck and into the ocean.
November 30, the night of the malfunction, was the second night of the 11th MEU's Composite Training Unit Exercise. The exercise was part of the MEU's pre-deployment training prior to their deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
Captain Derek C. Bibby, Harrier pilot, was taxiing his Harrier and preparing to take off from the flight deck when the aircraft's brake system failed. With the aircraft accelerating, and heading toward another Harrier and off the ship's flight deck, Bibby repositioned the exhaust nozzles forward causing the Harrier to stop.
Corporal Frank A. Valenzuela, powerline mechanic, saw the dangerous situation materializing and quickly went into action. Valenzuela ran underneath the aircraft and quickly secured it by tying it down with chocks and chains. His quick response stopped the aircraft from moving any further and prevented possible injury to Marines and sailors and damage to other aircraft, according to the award citation.
"The Harrier was literally feet away from going over the edge of the flight deck," said Valenzuela, who was 20 feet away from the aircraft at the time it stopped.
As the aircraft headed toward the edge of the flight deck, Bibby swerved to his right. This bought him some time, but he had to think quickly because he was running out of real estate fast. To make matters worse, his aircraft was headed toward another Harrier.
Bibby saw that his options were limited. Over his headset, he heard Maj. John Rahe, AV-8B Harrier Detachment officer-in-charge, Marine Attack Squadron 214, guiding him.
"It all happened so quickly. At the time, all I remember is hearing Maj. Rahe yelling over the radio. I can't remember what Maj. Rahe told me," said Bibby. According to Bibby, although he can't remember specifically what Rahe told him, Bibby is convinced that whatever Rahe said helped him save the aircraft.
According to Bibby, this was not the first time that a Harrier's brakes have failed him.
"I have experienced something like this before, but it was on the ground," said Bibby. "On the ground there's plenty of room to stop."
On the U.S.S. Peleliu, there isn't much room. Fortunately for Bibby, his experience and training helped him in this desperate situation.
"It was almost instinct for me to swerve to the right and reposition the exhaust nozzles," Bibby said. It was a combination of instinct, his training and Maj. Rahe's help on the radio that helped him, said Bibby.
When the Harrier came to a stop, it rested a few feet away from the edge of the ship and another parked Harrier.
Valenzuela took advantage of the moment and leapt beneath the belly of the aircraft – where temperatures can top more than 932 degrees Fahrenheit - and installed chocks and chains on the wheels to stop its forward progress.
"I knew there was a problem when the Harrier kept going despite attempts by flight line technicians to try to stop it," said Valenzuela. "I ran to the Harrier as soon as I could to stop it."
Although there was a possibility of being burned and run over, Valenzuela was left unscathed by his heroics.
"Somebody was looking out for us that day," said Bibby. "Because it was a miracle that nobody was hurt."