August 5, 2009
Compass Airlines Capt. Steven Peterka Receives
ALPA’s Superior Airmanship Award
Minneapolis Pilot Recognized for Superior Airmanship in Response to In-Flight Fire
WASHINGTON—The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), will recognize Compass Airlines Capt. Steven Peterka with ALPA’s 2008 Superior Airmanship Award for his extraordinary effort in performing an emergency landing during an in-flight fire on a May 2008 flight from Minneapolis–St. Paul to Regina, Saskatchewan.
“Capt. Peterka’s decisive action under intense pressure vividly demonstrates the tremendous value of a well-trained professional pilot,” said Capt. John Prater, ALPA’s president. “The Compass flight crew’s rapid assessment of the situation and flawless airmanship in diverting to Fargo made the difference between a serious crisis and a safe landing.”
Compass Airlines Flight 2040, Embraer 175 service, was in cruise flight at 32,000 feet, about 25 miles northwest of Fargo, N.D., when warnings went off indicating that smoke had been detected in the lavatory. Shortly afterward, a flight attendant confirmed the report, using the emergency intercom to alert the cockpit crew that she had seen flames in the lavatory.
Capt. Peterka immediately turned back to Fargo while then-F/O Clifton “Lee” Cain declared an emergency on the air traffic control frequency. After air traffic control had cleared the pilots to descend to 3,500 feet directly to Fargo, another warning message indicated that smoke had been detected in the air-conditioning system. At the same time, the pilots began smelling smoke. They immediately turned off the air-conditioning fans and donned oxygen masks.
Communication between the pilots was hampered by the oxygen masks. In addition, F/O Cain was having trouble getting through to air traffic control, as many other pilots were using the same frequency. To ensure that air traffic control understood the severity of the situation, Capt. Peterka transmitted the universal emergency call—“Mayday, mayday, mayday!”
Capt. Peterka knew that he and F/O Cain needed to land the plane as quickly as possible—the lives of his passengers and crew were at stake. He had grown up in Fargo and had lived there for 37 years, so he knew the landscape and his location in relation to the Fargo airport. Capt. Peterka disengaged the autopilot and manually rolled the aircraft into a hard right-hand diving turn, keeping the bank angle at 35–40 degrees and the speed high to increase the rate of descent and get the plane safely on the ground as quickly as possible.
F/O Cain had also flown out of Fargo for several years and knew the area well. Realizing how quickly they were approaching the Fargo airport, he determined the speeds to fly on the approach, ran checklists, and tried— unsuccessfully—to communicate with the flight attendants.
On final approach, while the pilots were slowing the aircraft, a flight attendant tried several times to call the cockpit—but the captain and first officer were unable to communicate because the oxygen masks interfered with their headsets.
The landing was firm, and the nose gear came down to the runway very fast and hard. Capt. Peterka got on the brakes hard and stopped the airplane on the runway. After touchdown, he said he and F/O Cain could hear cheering from the passengers—“one of the best sounds of my career,” he recalls.
After the passengers walked safely out of the airplane, it became evident that the fire was severe. The courageous action by Flight Attendant Gloria Heurtematte to attempt to extinguish the fire and protect the passengers was exemplary. Any delay in descending and landing could have resulted in the loss of all 79 souls on board the aircraft.
“Compass Airlines pilots commend our colleagues and recognize that the safe outcome of the flight is a direct result of teamwork, training, and experience,” said Eric Cowan, Compass coordinator for the Delta MEC. “While the more than 300 pilots of Compass Airlines share their commitment to the highest standards of safety, the actions of Capt. Peterka, F/O Cain, and Flight Attendant Heurtematte during this dangerous situation were truly exceptional and serve as a model for all airline pilots to follow.”
This award will be presented on August 6 during ALPA’s 2009 Air Safety Week Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C. ALPA will also honor Peterka’s colleagues, F/O Lee Cain and Flight Attendant Gloria Heurtematte, with a Superior Airmanship Award.
Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilots union, representing nearly 54,000 pilots at 36 airlines in the United States and Canada.
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