Air Force Capt. Forrest "Cal" Lampela was about to put the aircraft landing gear down in Shannon, Ireland, eight hours into a flight. If all had gone according to plan, he and his C-17 Globemaster III crew should have been more than halfway over the Atlantic.
He couldn't see the runway because of dense fog, catching a glimpse of it from only 100 feet above the ground — the absolute minimum altitude to which the large transport aircraft can descend before its pilot must either call for a landing or to abort approach.
Somewhere below, an ambulance stood by, waiting to pick up a sailor who had been wounded in combat and was in critical condition.
"I was a little bit afraid of where the ambulance was going to be because I didn't want him to try to run up on the jet while we still had engines running, because the fog was that bad," Lampela said.
He recalls it as "the most challenging landing that I've ever done." But on top of dangerous, foggy conditions, Lampela and the crew, call sign Reach 445, had just entered a country where they had not received diplomatic clearance before touching down.
When Hurricane Harvey slammed into southeast Texas with Category 4 intensity in late August 2017, causing devastating flooding and damage, many in the Houston metropolitan area struggled to find a way out of town. But with airports closed and flights grounded, Coast Guard Lt. Ronaqua Russell and her counterparts out of Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi were on the way in.
Russell, 28, was one of eight Coast Guard pilots to be awarded the prestigious Coast Guard Air Medal for operations in the wake of the deadly hurricane. And the award, presented Feb. 21 in Tuskegee, Alabama, made history: she is the first African-American woman in the service to ever receive the Air Medal. But despite what she calls the "surreal experience" of receiving the award, her focus is still on the mission ahead and her love of the job.