Bluetail 601: One Man’s Selfless Act of Bravery

Lt. Miroslav “Steve” Zilberman was born on February 20, 1979 in Kiev, Ukraine, not far from the charred toxic-remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.  His nickname was “Abrek,” the name of one of two primates that were sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on the Kosmos 1514 flight. Fearful of leaking radiation from the reactor, his parents, Boris Zilberman and Anna Sokolov, decided to emigrate to the United States in 1991 to make a better life for themselves. Ironically, they were also concerned that their bright and energetic son might be forced into the Soviet Army, only to see him later join the U.S. Navy. Mother Anna was a biochemist and worked for the Kiev Institute of Hygiene after earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in the field. Boris was an accomplished construction engineer. Sokolov was later “shocked” when she learned her only son had decided to join the Navy,

Young Abrek easily adapted to life in Columbus, Ohio and was by all accounts “incredibly smart;” He quickly picked up English. Zilberman’s English teacher, Marilyn Rofsky, remembered that Abrek interrupted her class asking for 50 cents to buy a soda. As she confronted him and asked him what he was doing. “Well, I am thirsty,” 12-year-old Zilberman evenly replied. Over time, Rofsky helped Zilberman adjust to life in the United States and discovered that he was strong-willed, knew what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do what he needed to get it. He also soon grew into a capable, driven, and handsome young man.

By the time Steve made it to high school, he met Katrina Yurchak, a Torah Academy student who later became his wife. While Zilberman was accepted into Ohio State University, he decided to join the Navy and attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Abrek didn’t want to rely on his parents and paid his own way through college; The American military made that possible. Even with time dedicated to the Navy, Abrek still managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rensselaer in only three years. Since his goal was to become an emergency-room doctor, he spent much of his time studying books on organic chemistry.  Incredibly, Zilberman turned down an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy so he could marry his girlfriend, Katrina. Following graduation from college, he was commissioned in 2003 and eventually ended up in Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121 (VAW-121), the, Bluetails, assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). It was not long before Zilberman was an accomplished pilot flying the Northrup Grumman E-2C Hawkeye, an all-weather tactical Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft with the nickname Super Fudd.

The E-2 Hawkeye aircraft Steve flew was originally developed in the early 1960s  by the Grumman Aircraft Corporation, a company with a well-earned reputation of designing and building strong airplanes. Zilberman’s E-2C version incorporated the latest advances in radar and avionics and the overall purpose of the aircraft was to collect and distribute tactical battlefield information back to Navy ships.

Zilberman never became a doctor, but he gained something at least as good, or possibly even better: Mythological status amongst his fellow pilots for the decisions he made and actions he took on March 31, 2010.

On board Bluetail 601 that day were Lts. Jeremy Arnott (copilot and Zilberman’s roommate), Edmund Poynton, and Richard Holt.  Arnott later remembered Zilberman as an “outgoing wisecracker” who would sometimes send out prank messages to other officers when they forgot to log off their computer.

“At first glance at Steve, it might be difficult to see him focusing on anything when he always had so much energy and would bounce from one topic to the next… I was amazed that in private he brought all of that energy and brought it under control and focused it on ambition…” Arnott recalled. All four of the men were eager to fly.

Zilberman was all business when it came to flying, because he knew that his very life depended on it. With the Hawkeye attached to the steam catapult’s shuttle and all the crewmembers strapped in place, the massive Eisenhower turned and sliced into the wind, while Abrek pushed the throttle levers forward to almost full power, watching the flight deck rise and fall, until the shooter judged it just right….

Feeling a massive shove at their backs and hearing a loud whoosing sound, Bluetail exploded down the smoke-filled deck like a ballistic missile, until it hit the end of the bow and with propellers clawing at the air, entered the realm of free flight. No information has been released describing what or was not accomplished during their flight, except that it was “routine.” That, unfortunately, was about to change during their return to the Eisenhower.

Noticing a glowing indication on the aircraft’s warning panel related to the starboard power unit, Arnott tersely asked if anyone else on board could see anything wrong with the right engine. Everything had been normal until they descended through an altitude of 17,000 feet only 50 miles from landing.

Poynton, who was the Combat Information Center Officer (CICO), on the right side of the aircraft, loosened his straps and peered outside; what he saw was not good. “….Affirmative, I can see a lot of oil streaming down the number 2 engine…. It looks orange…” At that moment, the entire crew knew they were in trouble. How long would the engine last?  Would they make it back to the carrier? It was impossible to say, and all everyone could do is remember their training and do their jobs.

Zilberman made a decision because of what he was seeing in the oil pressure warning indicators. What the pilot did next was “by the book” – he pulled the starboard power lever back to idle and shifted the rudder trim to 20 degrees left, to compensate for the loss of power in the right engine.

As soon as that power level went to idle, the airplane quickly careened to the right as Abrek fought to keep it under control by pressing hard on the left rudder pedal. Soon, they were only 12 miles from the Eisenhower, almost within sight. Crewmembers came out on deck when they learned that one of their planes was in trouble.

All twin-engine aircraft have “engine-out procedures,” which detail the steps needed to be taken to safely fly an airplane with only one engine; One thing is consistent: The propeller on the failing engine must be feathered. In the case of Bluetail 601, for whatever reason, the right engine refused to feather, adding so much more drag to that side of the aircraft to make it uncontrollable in flight. With the right engine out, the propeller blades unfeathered, and with that radar dome on top, Steve was not flying an airplane anymore -- he was flying a brick.

Zilberman had to lock his left knee to keep the rudder down, stay level, communicate with his crew, and make split-second decisions on what to do. They had tried every procedure in the book, all five of them, and they had all failed. He ordered Arnott to take control of the aircraft so he could stand up and jettison the escape hatches; there were two of them, each over a pilot.

There was no more time for screwing around. If anyone was to make it back alive, it would not be in Bluetail 601. Either Arnott or Zilberman radioed back to the ship that they were bailing out. But they couldn’t just get up and leave as someone had to keep the aircraft under control. If anyone took their hands off the controls, the Hawkeye would roll over, stall, and crash. Zilberman was the aircraft commander, so as soon as he was done opening their only means of escape, he took over from Arnott. “Pilot to crew, Bail out!”

They dropped quickly down to 1,000 feet above the water, the minimum safe bailout altitude, as Arnott stood up to get out of the airplane, hoping his friend Steve would quickly follow. As Arnott remembers, “Steve looked over and told me firmly to ‘GO, GO, GO!’…. He wanted to make sure I had time to get out safely, and he knew it was his duty to keep the aircraft flying long enough for us to get out safely.”

But they didn’t all get out safely.

Every aircraft has a flight envelope, within which the plane can be controlled. It is possible to fly on the edge of that envelope, but all the forces keeping the aircraft under control are balanced on the edge of a knife and it doesn’t take much to push it off. It is much like famed Finnish racer Kimi Räikkönen driving at 10/10ths. Eventually, after giving his flight crew enough time to bail out and save their lives, Abrek fell off the edge of the knife and departed from “controlled flight.” It was a valiant effort but try as he might, the Hawkeye simply got away from him; and once that happened, there was no going back.

Abrek’s E-2C Hawkeye smashed into the ocean and in a left wing, nose down orientation. When the nose hit the water, the entire cockpit section or everything in front of the wings disintegrated and was reduced to a mangled section of shattered pieces of aluminum.

Once the breakup was complete, what was left of the Hawkeye quickly sank and started a long descent to the bottom of the Arabian Sea, under a rapidly spreading slick of JP-4 jet fuel and hydraulic oil, sprinkled with small bits of insulation. Abrek had been swallowed by the abyss of the Arabian Sea; the only living thing left on Bluetail 601 was a the sharp ticking of a single Dukane acoustic beacon.  

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Miroslav Steven Zilberman would not be forgotten, not by his fellow fliers, his family, the Navy, or by me, once I learned his story. Kate Wiltrout of the Virginia Pilot wrote in April 2012, “Had a lesser pilot been at the controls of Bluetail 601 last Wednesday, there might have been four memorial services this week instead of one.” She was so right.

Curt Newport led the team that found Bluetail 601 deep in the Arabian Sea. He is the author of Lost Spacecraft: The Search for Liberty Bell-7 by Apogee Books.

Lt. Miroslav “Steve” Zilberman was born on February 20, 1979 in Kiev, Ukraine, not far from the charred toxic-remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.  His nickname was “Abrek,” the name of one of two primates that were sent into orbit by the Soviet Union on the Kosmos 1514 flight. Fearful of leaking radiation from the reactor, his parents, Boris Zilberman and Anna Sokolov, decided to emigrate to the United States in 1991 to make a better life for themselves. Ironically, they were also concerned that their bright and energetic son might be forced into the Soviet Army, only to see him later join the U.S. Navy. Mother Anna was a biochemist and worked for the Kiev Institute of Hygiene after earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in the field. Boris was an accomplished construction engineer. Sokolov was later “shocked” when she learned her only son had decided to join the Navy,

Young Abrek easily adapted to life in Columbus, Ohio and was by all accounts “incredibly smart;” He quickly picked up English. Zilberman’s English teacher, Marilyn Rofsky, remembered that Abrek interrupted her class asking for 50 cents to buy a soda. As she confronted him and asked him what he was doing. “Well, I am thirsty,” 12-year-old Zilberman evenly replied. Over time, Rofsky helped Zilberman adjust to life in the United States and discovered that he was strong-willed, knew what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do what he needed to get it. He also soon grew into a capable, driven, and handsome young man.

By the time Steve made it to high school, he met Katrina Yurchak, a Torah Academy student who later became his wife. While Zilberman was accepted into Ohio State University, he decided to join the Navy and attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Abrek didn’t want to rely on his parents and paid his own way through college; The American military made that possible. Even with time dedicated to the Navy, Abrek still managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rensselaer in only three years. Since his goal was to become an emergency-room doctor, he spent much of his time studying books on organic chemistry.  Incredibly, Zilberman turned down an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy so he could marry his girlfriend, Katrina. Following graduation from college, he was commissioned in 2003 and eventually ended up in Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121 (VAW-121), the, Bluetails, assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). It was not long before Zilberman was an accomplished pilot flying the Northrup Grumman E-2C Hawkeye, an all-weather tactical Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft with the nickname Super Fudd.

The E-2 Hawkeye aircraft Steve flew was originally developed in the early 1960s  by the Grumman Aircraft Corporation, a company with a well-earned reputation of designing and building strong airplanes. Zilberman’s E-2C version incorporated the latest advances in radar and avionics and the overall purpose of the aircraft was to collect and distribute tactical battlefield information back to Navy ships.

Zilberman never became a doctor, but he gained something at least as good, or possibly even better: Mythological status amongst his fellow pilots for the decisions he made and actions he took on March 31, 2010.

On board Bluetail 601 that day were Lts. Jeremy Arnott (copilot and Zilberman’s roommate), Edmund Poynton, and Richard Holt.  Arnott later remembered Zilberman as an “outgoing wisecracker” who would sometimes send out prank messages to other officers when they forgot to log off their computer.

“At first glance at Steve, it might be difficult to see him focusing on anything when he always had so much energy and would bounce from one topic to the next… I was amazed that in private he brought all of that energy and brought it under control and focused it on ambition…” Arnott recalled. All four of the men were eager to fly.

Zilberman was all business when it came to flying, because he knew that his very life depended on it. With the Hawkeye attached to the steam catapult’s shuttle and all the crewmembers strapped in place, the massive Eisenhower turned and sliced into the wind, while Abrek pushed the throttle levers forward to almost full power, watching the flight deck rise and fall, until the shooter judged it just right….

Feeling a massive shove at their backs and hearing a loud whoosing sound, Bluetail exploded down the smoke-filled deck like a ballistic missile, until it hit the end of the bow and with propellers clawing at the air, entered the realm of free flight. No information has been released describing what or was not accomplished during their flight, except that it was “routine.” That, unfortunately, was about to change during their return to the Eisenhower.

Noticing a glowing indication on the aircraft’s warning panel related to the starboard power unit, Arnott tersely asked if anyone else on board could see anything wrong with the right engine. Everything had been normal until they descended through an altitude of 17,000 feet only 50 miles from landing.

Poynton, who was the Combat Information Center Officer (CICO), on the right side of the aircraft, loosened his straps and peered outside; what he saw was not good. “….Affirmative, I can see a lot of oil streaming down the number 2 engine…. It looks orange…” At that moment, the entire crew knew they were in trouble. How long would the engine last?  Would they make it back to the carrier? It was impossible to say, and all everyone could do is remember their training and do their jobs.

Zilberman made a decision because of what he was seeing in the oil pressure warning indicators. What the pilot did next was “by the book” – he pulled the starboard power lever back to idle and shifted the rudder trim to 20 degrees left, to compensate for the loss of power in the right engine.

As soon as that power level went to idle, the airplane quickly careened to the right as Abrek fought to keep it under control by pressing hard on the left rudder pedal. Soon, they were only 12 miles from the Eisenhower, almost within sight. Crewmembers came out on deck when they learned that one of their planes was in trouble.

All twin-engine aircraft have “engine-out procedures,” which detail the steps needed to be taken to safely fly an airplane with only one engine; One thing is consistent: The propeller on the failing engine must be feathered. In the case of Bluetail 601, for whatever reason, the right engine refused to feather, adding so much more drag to that side of the aircraft to make it uncontrollable in flight. With the right engine out, the propeller blades unfeathered, and with that radar dome on top, Steve was not flying an airplane anymore -- he was flying a brick.

Zilberman had to lock his left knee to keep the rudder down, stay level, communicate with his crew, and make split-second decisions on what to do. They had tried every procedure in the book, all five of them, and they had all failed. He ordered Arnott to take control of the aircraft so he could stand up and jettison the escape hatches; there were two of them, each over a pilot.

There was no more time for screwing around. If anyone was to make it back alive, it would not be in Bluetail 601. Either Arnott or Zilberman radioed back to the ship that they were bailing out. But they couldn’t just get up and leave as someone had to keep the aircraft under control. If anyone took their hands off the controls, the Hawkeye would roll over, stall, and crash. Zilberman was the aircraft commander, so as soon as he was done opening their only means of escape, he took over from Arnott. “Pilot to crew, Bail out!”

They dropped quickly down to 1,000 feet above the water, the minimum safe bailout altitude, as Arnott stood up to get out of the airplane, hoping his friend Steve would quickly follow. As Arnott remembers, “Steve looked over and told me firmly to ‘GO, GO, GO!’…. He wanted to make sure I had time to get out safely, and he knew it was his duty to keep the aircraft flying long enough for us to get out safely.”

But they didn’t all get out safely.

Every aircraft has a flight envelope, within which the plane can be controlled. It is possible to fly on the edge of that envelope, but all the forces keeping the aircraft under control are balanced on the edge of a knife and it doesn’t take much to push it off. It is much like famed Finnish racer Kimi Räikkönen driving at 10/10ths. Eventually, after giving his flight crew enough time to bail out and save their lives, Abrek fell off the edge of the knife and departed from “controlled flight.” It was a valiant effort but try as he might, the Hawkeye simply got away from him; and once that happened, there was no going back.

Abrek’s E-2C Hawkeye smashed into the ocean and in a left wing, nose down orientation. When the nose hit the water, the entire cockpit section or everything in front of the wings disintegrated and was reduced to a mangled section of shattered pieces of aluminum.

Once the breakup was complete, what was left of the Hawkeye quickly sank and started a long descent to the bottom of the Arabian Sea, under a rapidly spreading slick of JP-4 jet fuel and hydraulic oil, sprinkled with small bits of insulation. Abrek had been swallowed by the abyss of the Arabian Sea; the only living thing left on Bluetail 601 was a the sharp ticking of a single Dukane acoustic beacon.  

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Miroslav Steven Zilberman would not be forgotten, not by his fellow fliers, his family, the Navy, or by me, once I learned his story. Kate Wiltrout of the Virginia Pilot wrote in April 2012, “Had a lesser pilot been at the controls of Bluetail 601 last Wednesday, there might have been four memorial services this week instead of one.” She was so right.

Curt Newport led the team that found Bluetail 601 deep in the Arabian Sea. He is the author of Lost Spacecraft: The Search for Liberty Bell-7 by Apogee Books.