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Pilots association honors Alaska Airlines crew for aborting Sitka takeoff after eagle strike

Posted: August 22, 2011 - 10:00pm

SITKA — Two Alaska Airlines pilots who aborted a jet takeoff from Sitka after an eagle strike last year have been honored by a pilots association.

Captain Steve Cleary of Federal Way, Wash., and First Officer Michael Hendrix of Seattle received the Superior Airmanship Award last week from the Air Line Pilots Association International, the world’s largest pilots union.

“Their swift action, clear thinking, and excellent teamwork kept everyone aboard safe,” said Paul Stuart, chairman of the union’s unit representing Alaska pilots. “Situations like this are what we, as professional pilots, train for, and they did their jobs perfectly.”

The Sitka Sentinel reports the community’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport has a single 6,500-foot, rock-rimmed runway that is nearly surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska. Pilots often refer to it as USS Sitka because it resembles the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Nearby mountains cause winds to swirl, sometimes producing tailwinds at both ends of the runway.

The weather in Sitka on Aug. 8, 2010, featured a low pressure system off the coast that had pulled thick rain clouds over Baranof Island and the airport.

Cleary and Hendrix were at the controls of Boeing 737-400, a twin-engine jet, for Alaska Airlines Flight 68 from Sitka to Seattle.

The plane was full, carrying 134 passengers, five crewmembers, and a full cargo hold. The 132,000 pounds on board, combined with the short runway, meant that the pilots needed to use special takeoff procedures.

As they accelerated down the runway, Cleary saw an eagle in the jet’s path. As the jet reached 150 mph, the eagle smashed into the left engine, which exploded and burst into flames.

The aircraft lurched left.

Cleary called out, “Abort! My aircraft!” and started emergency procedures to maintain control.

As he fought to stop the jet, Hendrix kept him apprised of the aircraft’s speed and distance to the end of the runway. The heavy airliner stopped at the end of the runway.

“This could have had a tragic ending, but for a split-second decision and meticulous execution of the aborted takeoff that safely brought the aircraft to a stop before the end of the runway,” said Alaska Airlines’ system chief pilot, Capt. Tom Kemp The prevention of a hull loss and the fact that no one was injured speaks to the tremendous professionalism of our crew.”

Cleary told the newspaper after the incident that he had hit birds before, but the damage to the $7 million engine was the most extensive he’d seen.

“You could see through the engine,” he said. “All the blades were destroyed.”

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