August 14, 2008
Northwest Capt. Dennis Leighton Receives
ALPA’s Superior Airmanship Award
Kirkland, Wash., pilot recognized for superior airmanship skills exhibited after instrument failures in bad weather
WASHINGTON—The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), will recognize Northwest Airlines (NWA) Capt. Dennis Leighton with the ALPA Superior Airmanship Award for his outstanding performance in preventing the catastrophic loss of NWA Flight 908, a Boeing-747-200 F cargo aircraft flying from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei to New Tokyo International Airport (Narita) in Japan on Aug. 14, 2007.
“The actions of the pilots of Northwest Flight 908 underscore the importance of having a trained, experienced flight crew in the cockpit, ready to act decisively at a moment’s notice,” said ALPA President, Capt. John Prater. “This crew’s flying skills and teamwork prevented what could have been widespread death and destruction.”
Taipei, during the height of the rainy season, was under siege by heavy rain, thunderstorms, clouds, fog, low visibility, and wind shear when this flight crew arrived at the airplane on August 14.
During the cargo loading process and unknown to the crew, the rain flooded the airplane’s electronics compartment, which almost spelled disaster for these pilots. The water flowed into all three Inertial Navigation System (INS) units, the system that pilots use to show the airplane is right-side-up or turning, to navigate, and to stabilize their cockpit weather radar. Just after takeoff, this water triggered virtually simultaneous failures of all three systems.
Left with only standby instruments, flying through a sky thick with thunderstorms, the pilots declared an emergency with the Taipei air traffic control (ATC) tower. After several minutes of struggling with the language barrier, the controllers finally understood the urgency of the situation.
The pilots’ lack of navigation information and cockpit weather radar, together with the challenging weather and the difficulties in communicating with local ATC, put them in a perilous situation. The crew had lost the ability to find the airport without ATC assistance and had almost no way of precisely following the ATC instructions. As a result, the crew had to prepare for and fly four approaches before Capt. Leighton was finally able to land the heavily loaded freighter. Flying through a bank of fog just before touching down, the captain made a safe landing with the runway visibility barely at the minimum allowed—half a mile.
Subsequent investigation revealed that the downpours caused inordinate amounts of water to build up in the airplane. Although rare, the failure these pilots faced, called “a triple INS dump,” is a known and acknowledged problem in this aircraft type; the manufacturer is continuing to work on a fix that eliminates the problem.
“Capt. Leighton and his crew demonstrated superior airmanship in this critical situation and prevented potentially catastrophic consequences. While their professionalism is typical of the 5,000 Northwest pilots, the performance in this dangerous and high pressure event was exceptional,” said Northwest Master Executive Council (MEC) Chairman, Capt. Dave Stevens.
This award will be presented today at ALPA’s 54th Annual Air Safety & Security Week and Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C. ALPA will also honor Leighton’s colleagues, First Officer Edward Sparks and Second Officer David Kritzer, with a Superior Airmanship Award for their critically important contributions to the successful outcome of this harrowing event.
Founded in 1931, ALPA represents 55,000 pilots at 40 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. Visit www.alpa.org for more information.
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CONTACT: Pete Janhunen, Linda Shotwell, Molly Martin, (703) 481-4440