MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
The emergency landing of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737, transporting 126 passengers, on the station’s flight line April 1, 2011, was an unusual incident that was successfully handled with the help of one Marine’s decisive leadership.
The plane rapidly descended after a gaping hole was ripped into the aircraft’s fuselage, at approximately 30,000 feet elevation.
Gunnery Sgt. Eric Weeks, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron aircraft rescue and firefighting incident commander, led the emergency response and as a result of his initiative received a letter of appreciation from the station April 22, 2011.
The director of the Yuma International Airport, Craig Williams, acknowledged the professionalism and dedication with which ARFF members responded to the incident, noting Weeks leadership qualities.
“I would like to single out Weeks for his superior ability as a take charge leader,” said Williams. “When the senior Southwest Airlines representative arrived on the replacement aircraft, she started to get way off track with paperwork. Weeks planted himself in front of the agent and said, ‘You need to talk to those passengers because they’re starting to get upset. Now!’ That agent blinked a couple of times and then boarded the aircraft and tended to the passengers. The stressful situation among the passengers quickly evaporated thanks to his leadership.”
Just hours before the incident, Air Traffic Control was notified of an emergency concerning a military aircraft malfunction. The Marines, led by Weeks, a 38-year-old native of Greensboro, N.C., responded immediately.
Before completely finishing with the emergency, Weeks’ crew was alerted to the much more urgent commercial aircraft incident.
“To get another serious emergency with the potential of mass casualties was surprising,” said Weeks. “We don’t get a lot of civilian emergency calls, especially that large, and aircraft such as the 737 don’t ever land here, so it threw us for a loop. But it is something we are prepared for and train for every day.”
The aircraft safely landed at 4:25 p.m., at which time Weeks and his crew carefully assessed the aircraft for any potential fires, explosions or gas leaks, before directing it to a better location.
“This was my first civilian aircraft emergency of this nature,” said Weeks. “There was a large number of people on the aircraft, something not seen in military aircrafts. I wanted to make sure the passengers were safe and taken care of as best we could.”
Station firefighters checked the passengers and provided care as needed. Two had suffered minor injuries, and a six-year-old girl fainted.
Weeks and his Marine’s efforts did not go unnoticed and thus were recognized.
“I feel this award was to crash crew as a whole,” said Weeks. “It’s very rare that crash crew is recognized for doing our job. We are the one section that you don’t want to be busy. It’s just Marines doing their job.”