50 years ago this month, a South Dakota Air National Guard pilot made headlines in dramatic fashion.
What was supposed to be a routine training flight out at the Air National Guard base back in July of 1969, turned out to be a big story.
An emergency landing of an F-102 fighter jet at Joe Foss Field back in 1969 captured all the headlines. The pilot’s skills combined with well trained first responders averted a near air disaster.
Major Arden “Flip” Fjellanger, who worked for the phone company, had been flying an early morning training mission near Fargo before he went to work that day.
But while in the air over North Dakota, the plane lost half of its flight controls.
“So I thought this is not good,” Fjellanger said.
Fjallenger aborted the mission and headed back to Sioux Falls.
But upon approach to the airport the landing gear to the front of his plane wouldn’t come down.
“So I did some heavy G pulling, I thought that might snap it down, but that didn’t do it,” Fjellanger said.
And to make matters worse, he was also running low on fuel. “I said I got to land,” Fjellanger said.
Recognizing Major Fjellanger was in trouble and was going to have to make an emergency landing, maintenance personnel at the Air Guard sprung into action.
“They were grabbing anybody who was a warm body and poured this foam down out on the runway,” Fjellanger said.
The foam would minimize the plane from bursting into flames if it crashed.
Fjellanger began his lineup for the runway, but because he was almost out of fuel, the plane was light and flying fast.
“I’m coming over the river and I said ‘I got to slow this thing down’ so I pull the drag shoot in the air, which is not normal,” Fjellanger said.
But he knew it would work and if he had any chance of saving the aircraft and possibly his life, he had to do it.
One other factor complicated the emergency landing even more. At that time, Russia was considered a real threat to the U.S.
“There was this possibility the Russians were going to bomb us,” Arden Fjellanger said.
So his plane had been fully loaded that morning with rockets and missiles. If he crashed it could have made a disaster even worse.
Fjellanger eased the crippled airplane slowly down; with only half his controls working, no brakes and no front landing gear.
Incredibly, everything turned out as well as it could have.
“From that standpoint everybody said ‘oh skillful landing’ to me it wasn’t that big of a deal; only thing that bothered me was I was going to be late for work, so….” Fjellanger said.
After he landed, he knew he had better alert his wife.
“I called Mavis and told her about it,” Fjellanger said.
“He said I had a little trouble landing and it might be on the news and sure enough it was, I was glad he called me and told me he was okay,” Mavis said.
To this day Fjellanger still has a piece from the plane. It’s a day he’ll never forget and neither will Mavis.
“We got through it, he came home and it was pretty special to have him home,” Mavis said.
Fjellanger was awarded the Air Force Commendation medal for his heroics. He retired from Air Guard in 1984 as a Lt. Colonel.