August 18, 2011
AirTran Airways Pilots Recognized for
Troubleshooting Critical Fuel System Failure, Landing Safely
Pilots to Receive ALPA’s Superior Airmanship Award
WASHINGTON―The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), will honor AirTran Airways pilots Capt. Richard Stalnaker of Hurricane, WV, and F/O Mendel Bell of North Myrtle Beach, SC, with the Association’s Superior Airmanship Award for safely landing an airliner crippled by a critical fuel system failure. ALPA will present the award to the pilots on August 18 at ALPA’s 57th Air Safety Forum Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C.
“Capt. Stalnaker and F/O Bell’s actions are a testament to the knowledge and skill of our airmen,” said F/O Linden Hillman, chairman of the ALPA Master Executive Council representing AirTran Airways pilots.
Capt. Stalnaker and F/O Bell were the pilots of AirTran Flight 981, Boeing 717-200 service from Orlando to Pittsburgh, on the evening of August 5, 2010. Their takeoff and climb from Orlando were normal until air traffic control advised the pilots that, because of heavy traffic, they would be given a hold.
While checking the aircraft’s fuel status in preparation for the hold, Capt. Stalnaker noticed a slight imbalance—the airliner’s left wing tank held about 200 pounds more than the right wing tank. He opened the crossfeed valve to burn more fuel from the left wing tank and balance the load.
Soon after climbing above 18,000 feet, the pilots noticed that the fuel imbalance had become significantly worse—it was now 1,400 pounds, just shy of the airliner’s lateral fuel imbalance limit of 1,500 pounds. The fuel appeared to be moving at astonishing speed from the right to the left wing tank.
The pilots began troubleshooting the problem; despite their best efforts, the problem was growing worse by the second, as the fuel imbalance was still increasing.
The pilots knew that controlling the airliner was going to be difficult when they asked air traffic control for a return to Orlando International Airport.
Shortly after starting the descent for their return to Orlando, the pilots received a low-fuel-pressure warning. Using their knowledge of the airplane’s systems, the pilots soon determined that the only way to maintain good fuel flow to the right engine was to use a significantly higher thrust setting than was required for a normal descent and arrival. This further exacerbated the problem as the right main tank was now quickly emptying.
With the left wing tank holding 9,000 pounds of fuel and the right wing tank empty, the pilots prepared for landing. The pilots knew that they would have to land the airplane at a much higher speed than normal to maintain control. Capt. Stalnaker was forced to use a reduced flap setting of 25 degrees, rather than the usual 40. The pilots expertly coped with the dual challenge of abnormally high speed and reduced controllability, landed safely, and taxied to the gate.
Capt. Lee Moak, president of ALPA, commended the pilots. “The Air Line Pilots Association was built on the foundation of safety. Capt. Stalnaker and F/O Bell exemplify the spirit of professionalism displayed by ALPA pilots every day.”
Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilots union, representing more than 53,000 pilots at 39 airlines in the United States and Canada.
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