Pilots Awarded for Saving Damaged Jet

Photo courtesy Air Line Pilots Association: Air Line Pilots Association, Int'l. President Capt. Lee Moak, Alaska Airlines Capt. Steve Cleary, and Alaska Airlines First Officer Michael Hendrix at the Air Safety Forum 2011 - Awards Banquet.

Two Alaska Airlines pilots are being recognized for safely handling a jet last year after one of its engines exploded while taking off from Sitka.

Captain Steve Cleary and First Officer Michael Hendrix won the Superior Airmanship Award from the Air Line Pilots Association Aug. 18th.

Cleary and Hendrix were at the Boeing 737’s controls on August 8th, 2010.

Association spokeswoman Jennifer Sutton says there was little room for error at Sitka’s island airport, with ocean waters at the end of the runway.

“As they stared to accelerate down the runway, they hit about 100 knots. And they saw an eagle flash past the plane, directly in the path ahead. Just mere seconds later, when they hit about 130 knots, which is about 150 miles an hour, the eagle smashed into the left engine, causing the engine to explode and burst into flames,” she says.

With one engine gone and one going full throttle, the pilots struggled to maintain control. But they were able to stop the jet before it veered off the runway or went into the water.

“The really amazing thing here is that while this could have had a tragic ending, the procedures they took that day and the clear, swift-thinking action resulted in an event where there were no injuries to any of the 134 passengers or five crew members on board,” she says.

The pilots were not available for immediate comment.

The $7 million engine had to be replaced. A jet sent to pick up stranded passengers also struck and killed an eagle on takeoff. That plane was not damaged and the flight continued.

Only one other crew received the annual award from the association, the world’s largest pilots union. It was presented at the 57th Air Safety Forum Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.