Exceptional Piloting and Decisive Action

ALPA Recognizes Crews for Their Superior Airmanship

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer

A decades-long tradition since 1984, ALPA recognizes flight crews who’ve demonstrated superior airmanship and outstanding professionalism while carrying out their duties as airline pilots. Given each year during the Association’s Annual Air Safety Awards banquet, the presentation of the Superior Airmanship Awards is one of the highlights of the Association’s four-day Air Safety Forum, a conference focused on improving aviation safety and security.

“ALPA is proud to recognize these pilots who performed their duties skillfully under unexpected and extremely stressful circumstances,” said Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president. “Their quick and competent handling of the in-flight emergencies they faced is a credit to all of us who’ve chosen aviation as a profession. I commend them for their actions and for demonstrating once again why the most important elements of aviation safety are the two highly trained and qualified pilots who occupy the captain and first officer seats at the front of the aircraft, and in many cases the additional pilots, including jumpseating pilots, who are also on the flight deck.”

This year, ALPA honors three pilots for their quick thinking, decisiveness, and exceptional performance during critical in-flight emergencies. These are their stories.

Delta Air Lines Flight 2295

On the evening of Nov. 19, 2022, Capt. Stuart Smith and then F/O Ian Augustine were enroute from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to Omaha, Neb., while operating Delta Air Lines Flight 2295. Augustine was at the controls during the nighttime descent to Eppley Field, and he’d just begun to decrease the airplane’s speed in anticipation of descending below 10,000 feet. Suddenly, as they passed through 13,000 feet, there was a loud explosion, and the flight deck door blew open as the crew experienced a rapid decompression.

“I honestly thought that it might be a bomb,” said Smith, who initially wondered if it might have been a terrorist attack. The panel behind Augustine had come down, and the overhead panel lights had gone out. Smith quickly assessed the situation and assigned duties as the temperature on the flight deck plummeted.

“The first five or 10 seconds were very chaotic,” Augustine remarked. “We were just trying to determine what had happened and if the plane was going to continue flying. Communication was the hardest part, just trying to hear what was being said.”

“We couldn’t communicate through our headsets,” Smith acknowledged, “so I grabbed Ian, shook him, and yelled: ‘You’re flying!’”

The pilots didn’t realize it yet, but they’d just suffered a significant bird strike in which several geese had penetrated the skin of the aircraft.

Smith immediately began to assess the situation. He determined that both engines were still operating and then contacted air traffic control to declare an emergency. He also decided that oxygen masks wouldn’t be necessary, as they’d quickly descend through 10,000 feet.

“The initial event occurred at 310 knots, and at that speed, and with the amount of wind that was coming into the flight deck, it was very hard to communicate,” said Augustine. “After we slowed to 250 knots, and then to 210, and started to configure the aircraft, it became much easier to communicate. We could hear each other through the headsets at that point. There was also a hole directly above my head that was pouring ice-cold air on me. But as we slowed, it got significantly easier.”

Once communication was possible again, they ran through the ECAM actions and went through all the systems to make sure that everything was okay.

“I was talking with air traffic control and getting set up for an extended final,” Augustine remarked. “We were on a 40-mile straight-in approach for the landing runway at the time of the incident, so we just stayed on that course. While I was communicating with air traffic control and getting the plane slowed and configured, Capt. Smith was verifying that everything was safe, and making the communications to flight attendants, passengers, and dispatch. When he was finished with those duties, we completed the remaining checklist items and configured the aircraft for landing.”

“I assured everyone that it was going to be okay and that we were going to do a normal approach and landing,” Smith noted. “The only difference was that we were going to stop on the runway—that way the support vehicles could check us out.”

Upon landing, the crew was met by aircraft rescue and firefighting personnel, who relayed evidence of multiple bird strikes near and around the flight deck, all of which had penetrated the aircraft skin. The crew also noted that the flight deck dome light was broken and that there was a basketball-sized hole in the ceiling panel above Augustine’s head.

“After we got to the hotel, we all met in the lobby to debrief,” said Smith. “It was very interesting to listen to the flight attendants and get their view of what had happened, how they dealt with it, and what the passengers were experiencing. It was really good to get their perspectives.”

As the possibility of single-pilot operations within the airline industry increasingly becomes a threat to aviation safety, both pilots agreed that having two pilots on the flight deck was absolutely crucial to their ability to safely and successfully manage this critical in-flight situation.

“Two pilots are important, even when everything is perfect,” remarked Smith, “but when you have to deal with emergency procedures and the stress levels and workload are high, that’s where it’s super critical. With two pilots on the flight deck, you’re able to divide responsibilities. Managing all that as a single pilot would be very difficult. You’d have to prioritize what’s important, and you might miss something, like reading a clearance back to ATC incorrectly,” added Smith. “That could be catastrophic, but the other pilot would catch it. The other pilots is there to back you up. And that’s why, if you look at the industry as a whole, airline travel is by far the safest mode of transportation in the world.”

“Having that highly trained and qualified pilot to back you up when something unexpected happens is absolutely priceless,” Augustine agreed.

“Capt. Smith and F/O [now Capt.] Augustine’s response to a dangerous situation ensured that the flight ended safely, with no injuries to crew or passengers,” said Capt. Darren Hartmann (Delta), his pilot group’s Master Executive Council chair. “Facing numerous simultaneous challenges and distractions, the crew executed textbook threat and error management. They displayed the highest level of professional and airmanship, and I’m immensely proud of their efforts.”

Envoy Air Flight 3556

Coincidentally, on that very same evening, Nov. 19, 2022, Capt. Brandon Hendrickson was serving as a check pilot on Envoy Air Flight 3556, a flight from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Columbus, Ohio, as his fellow pilot, a recently hired captain, was completing his IOE.

“We had been down in the crew room doing a prebriefing for the flight that evening to Columbus,” Hendrickson said. “He seemed just fine prior to the flight as we waited for the inbound aircraft to come in, and everything was okay later as we taxied out onto Runway 28R for takeoff.”

Former Envoy Air Capt. Brandon Hendrickson, now an American Airlines first officer, describes how he safely landed Envoy Flight 3556 after the IOE captain at the controls of the aircraft became incapacitated.

The IOE captain was at the controls when the aircraft departed the runway. But very quickly, it became apparent to Hendrickson that his fellow pilot had suffered a medical event and had become unresponsive.

“At approximately 400 or 500 feet, I noticed that the IOE captain wasn’t responding to the callouts that I was making,” remarked Hendrickson. “I also heard a little bit of gasping in my headset, and that caught my attention. I looked over and noticed that he was slouched over in his seat. I leaned over, called his name, and shook him. When he didn’t respond, I immediately took the controls, called the tower, and told them that I had an incapacitated pilot and that we needed to return.”

Hendrickson continued the climbout and received vectors to the downwind for Runway 28C. While on downwind, he was able to coordinate with operations, letting them know what his situation was and that he wanted to have medical assistance available at the gate. Hendrickson also communicated with the flight attendants to let them know what was going on and asked them to see if there were any physicians on board. The aircraft was back on the ground within minutes, and he exited the runway and stopped on the taxiway.

“They were able to find three doctors,” Hendrickson noted. “One of the physicians came onto the flight deck, checked for a pulse, and indicated that they needed to initiate CPR right away. We removed the captain from his seat to the floor of the first-class cabin where the doctors immediately began providing medical assistance.”

Hendrickson taxied the aircraft back to the gate while a commuting pilot who was on board assisted with radio communications during taxi. Paramedics were already at the gate when they arrived. They came on board, removed the incapacitated pilot to the jet bridge, and proceeded to work on him there for an additional 30 minutes. Unfortunately, they were unable to revive the IOE captain, who passed away.

After reflecting on this event, Hendrickson observed that it would be beneficial to have training regarding pilot-incapacitation procedures for every phase of flight. Because each phase of flight is different, he believes it’s important that pilots train for these specific situations so that everyone is prepared, rather than being caught off guard and in panic mode.

Hendrickson also shared his opinion about the recent push by some in the airline industry to reduce the number of crewmembers on the flight deck during certain types of operations.

“I feel that this is a big safety issue,” said Hendrickson. “If a pilot becomes incapacitated, someone needs to be there when that happens. It can also be as simple as a crewmember not being able to perform at 100 percent because of sickness or fatigue. In any case, removing a crewmember from the flight deck is a huge safety issue. There absolutely needs to be two crewmembers on the flight deck at all times.”

“The quick thinking and swift actions of Capt. Hendrickson [now a first officer at American Airlines] on Flight 3556 speak to his skill and professionalism,” said F/O Chase Freeman (Envoy), the pilot group’s Master Executive Council chair. “Under intense pressure from an emergency during a critical phase of flight, he was able to safely return his passengers and crew to Chicago O’Hare. This event emphasizes the importance of pilot training and the need for two well-rested pilots on the flight deck. I can’t applaud Capt. Hendrickson enough for his actions that night. The flying public is very fortunate to have professional aviators like Capt. Hendrickson.”

This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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