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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 29, 2012
Pilot’s sacrifice saved three crew members,
co-pilot Jeremy Arnott works to improve Hawkeye safety
Lieutenant Steven Zilberman, United States Navy, was killed when his plane went down near Pakistan on March 31 two years ago.
A memorial will go up in his honor at his college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, on Saturday, this March 31, but friends and family say no material object is needed to remember Zilberman or his heroism.
Zilberman saved three lives when he stayed in his Hawkeye as it plummeted to the sea.
One of the lives he saved belongs to Lieutenant Jeremy Arnott, a Guilderland High School graduate; Zilberman and Arnott met at their alma mater Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“The most important part of this story is that Steve will always be remembered for his sacrifice; we will always be grateful and we will always remember,” said Pat Arnott, of Guilderland, Jeremy Arnott’s mother.
Arnott described his friend and fellow lieutenant as “kind of a jokester,” the guy who would do anything for a laugh or a groan, but also the kind of father who wanted to make sure his two young children “had a good life going for them.”
As an officer, Arnott said, Zilberman always had words of encouragement for those who were struggling.
“There were some points when I had difficulty with the squadron, and he’d pull me aside and tell me how great I was doing,” said Arnott.
Arnott first met Zilberman when they were at RPI in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Zilberman was two classes ahead of Arnott, but the two were friendly acquaintances.
When Arnott joined the Navy, and subsequently Zilberman’s squadron, the Blue Tails, in 2009, he said, “It was nice to have a friend there.”
In 2010, Arnott and Zilberman decided to room together on their aircraft carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On March 31, 2010, Arnott, Zilberman, and two others were on a mission, flying from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back again. It was on the return trip, only five miles from the carrier, that a caution light came on, saying the plane’s oil was getting low.
Arnott looked out the window of the plane and saw oil pouring from the engine. He and Zilberman consulted the book for emergency procedures, which told them to shut down the engine.
“Our plane, an ETC Hawkeye, is powered by two propellers when you shut down the engine,” said Arnott. “The propellers are supposed to feather and then turn parallel, so they won’t create a drag on the plane.”
The propellers didn’t feather that day, he said, and there was a lot of drag, or air resistance, working against the plane.
“Even when I saw that the propeller didn’t feather, I still didn’t think it would be a problem,” Arnott said. “My first thought was that we’d need to divert and land on the shore.”
“But,” Arnott continued, “as we were trying to figure out if we had enough fuel left, we realized we were dropping and couldn’t gain altitude.”
Zilberman began ordering his three crew members to bail out of the plane. Arnott said he did not listen, at least not at first.
“I didn’t think we’d have time to bail out,” said Arnott. “We were flying sideways and completely out of control.”
Zilberman had to momentarily hand the controls over to Arnott because he had pulled the handle to jettison the door, and it wouldn’t open. Zilberman had to kick the door out.
“I kept trying to stay there and fly the plane with Steve, but he kept looking at me and saying, ‘Go, go, go!’” said Arnott.
He moved toward the door, where the other two crew members were waiting for him, and they all jumped.
“I kept thinking he had probably bailed out after me,” said Arnott. “I didn’t realize until after the helicopter had rescued the rest of us that he hadn’t made it out.”
He wanted to help with the search for Zilberman.
“I was in the helicopter and they wanted to take me back to the carrier, but I said, ‘No, I want to keep looking,’” Arnott said. He stayed up in the helicopter for 30 minutes before the aircraft carrier crew forced the helicopter pilots to bring him back down.
Arnott’s mother, Pat, said she and her family were listening to the radio on the morning of March 31, 2010, when they heard the news that an ETC Hawkeye, off of the Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, had gone down.
“We didn’t want to think it, but we knew the odds weren’t good,” said Mrs. Arnott. The Dwight D. Eisenhower carried only four Hawkeyes, and there were only 10 pilots approved to fly them.
Later that afternoon, the phone rang at the Arnotts’ Guilderland home, and the caller identification stated the call was from the United States Navy.
“I handed the phone to my husband, because I didn’t know what it was going to be about,” said Mrs. Arnott.
It was Jeremy on the other end of the line.
“His voice was so wonderful to hear, and it was such a relief to know he was safe,” Mrs. Arnott said. “But at the same time, we knew there was another mother out there not getting a phone call.”
After the plane crash, the United States Navy was required to conduct an investigation into the safety procedures used on the plane, and, during that time, Arnott was grounded from flying. The investigation revealed that there were no errors in procedure and no human was at fault in the accident.
Arnott was not surprised by the finding.
“Steve knew the emergency procedures really well and executed them flawlessly,” he said.
“We always knew there was the possibility of danger,” said Arnott. “But we didn’t think about it much, and didn’t talk about it much. We never appreciated the true nature of the threat.”
Even so, Arnott said, the incident has not caused him any extra anxiety about flying.
“It has caused a lot of determination in me to want to fix this, to make sure this problem doesn’t happen again,” he said. Over the past two years, he has been working with engineers to come up with new procedures, and has submitted some proposals to the Navy.
“I’ve tried to tell them that people need to be taught about this exact situation that happened so they know what they’re up against,” he said.
In the weeks following the accident, Arnott said, he was under the impression that Zilberman’s wife, Katrina, whom Zilberman had married immediately after completing boot camp, wanted to be left alone, so he did not contact her.
He did, however, send Zilberman’s parents, Anna Sokolov and Boris Zilberman who had moved to the United States when their only child was a boy a letter, and asked if he could visit them sometime.
Arnott did visit them, and eventually met Katrina Zilberman, and the Zilberman’s two children, Daniel and Sarah.
“I’ve been good friends with them ever since,” said Arnott. “I visit them four or five times a year.”
Mrs. Arnott, too, has reached out to the Zilberman family.
“Every time I think about Steve’s mother, I feel badly, because, when you experience such a loss, I can’t imagine how you even manage to put one foot in front of the other,” Mrs. Arnott said.
“Whenever I send her a message, I try to say something comforting, and I always get a gracious, comforting message back,” she continued.
As for her own son, Mrs. Arnott said she believes the accident and tragedy has affected him more profoundly than he realizes.
“He has thrown himself into making safety procedures better,” she said. “I think by reviewing the mechanics over and over again, and talking about what went wrong, it has helped him to realize he’s not at fault.”
Befriending the Zilbermans has also helped him cope.
“The kids just love him now,” she said.
One of Arnott’s favorite memories of Zilberman is watching him make a video for his kids, during which he sang and danced to a “girly pop song.”
Zilberman received a medal for bravery from the United States Navy; his high school in Ohio dedicated a plaque to him; there is a memorial plaque for him in Virginia Beach; and, as of Saturday, yet another memorial will exist in his honor.
But, according to the Arnotts, it is not the memorials that will keep his memory alive into the future. It is his heroism that will live on because of him, three comrades are alive today.
By Anne Hayden
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