Marine Major Corey Jones has earned a new nickname. Very few of a United States Marine Corps (USMC) pilot’s duties can be described as being mundane. At most, some might be described as routine, but even the slightest mistake as a pilot while performing any duty can mean death for an aircraft’s crew.
That’s what almost happened in the skies over Arizona in September of 2020. But thanks to Marine Major Corey Jones, a tragedy of epic scale was avoided.
The massive KC-130J Super Hercules crashed, but Jones’ manoeuvres meant that seven lives, in addition to his own, were spared.
Marine Calm Under Pressure
His quick thinking and calm under pressure demeaner earned him the air force’s highest honour, the Distinguished Flying Cross. His heroism also earned him the award of “Marine Corps Times Service Member Of The Year” award, which is a publication for all branches of the American military.
Events of that day in the fall of 2020 are of the kind no pilot ever wants to participate in, as they rarely live to tell the tale.
Jones and his crew were out on a routine refueling mission. Their job was to top up the fuel of two F-35Bs and get back to their airbase in Yuma, Arizona. It was the kind of routine duty the crew had done many times before.
The first F-35B lined up beside Jones’ aircraft and got its fuel without incident. Then it moved away, hovering nearby as its partner moved into position. It was then that the unthinkable happened.
The two planes hit. Jones and his crew felt the impact and knew immediately they were in serious trouble. Two of its four engines were suddenly made useless, and the control panel stopped functioning.
To make matters worse, a fire broke out on the right wing. Jones had only moments to act, knowing if he made the wrong decision they would all perish, either by the tanker bursting into flames or by it crashing to the ground.
“In a mishap of that magnitude, it’s unique to have the pilot go around and give the brief,” said Lt. Col. Charles “Smokey” Casey, fleet replacement commander.
“One, because they’re normally not around anymore,” Casey said. “And two because they just can’t do it, they’re not able to talk about the events and stay composed.”
In a split second, he realized he couldn’t make the flight back to base – there wasn’t enough time. But Jones had flown over California before and he knew of an airport where he just might make an emergency landing. He veered off and headed straight to it.
Only two of the landing wheels were operational, which meant going down on the hard surface of a runway might prove fatal.
And – Jones recalled later – that’s the moment he felt providence intervene.
He spotted a farmer’s field that had been recently irrigated, meaning the land would be relatively soft. He lowered the aircraft – by this time the fire was lessening – and tried to set the landing gear to be ready.
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Although the KC-130J was badly damaged, all Jones cared about was getting it on the ground so his crew of seven could escape unhurt.
Later he recounted feeling like it took forever, but he successfully landed the damaged aircraft. At first the crew was penned inside by doors that had been scorched in the fire, but brute strength, the kind that comes when life is at stake, helped one of the men kick a door open.
All the crew members escaped with their lives, and showered Jones with praise for his quick thinking, calm and grace under extreme pressure.
Today, Jones uses the experience as a teachable moment for young pilots in training. He speaks to classes full of eager Marine aviation trainees, all of whom imagine routine tasks like refueling other jets is a boring part of their jobs. Jones quickly and firmly disabuses students of that notion, recounting in vivid detail how he, and seven others, nearly lost their lives on that autumn day.
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Jones earned a new nickname after the incident. Pilots have a cheeky sense of humour, and that cheekiness was front and centre when he became Cory “Cliff” Jones after September 29, 2020.
“Cliff” stands for “crash landed in farmer’s field.”
Cheeky indeed, but his heroism has become the stuff of legend.