Federal Way pilot experiences his own ‘Captain Sully moment’

Captain Steve Cleary of Federal Way (second from left) and First Officer Michael Hendrix received their Superior Airmanship awards on Aug. 18 at a banquet in Washington, D.C.  - Courtesy image
Captain Steve Cleary of Federal Way (second from left) and First Officer Michael Hendrix received their Superior Airmanship awards on Aug. 18 at a banquet in Washington, D.C.
— image credit: Courtesy image

Federal Way resident and Alaska Airlines Captain Steve Cleary received the Air Line Pilot’s Association’s (ALPA) “Superior Airmanship Award” on Aug. 18 at a banquet in Washington, D.C.

Cleary and his first officer, Michael Hendrix, were the pilots of a Boeing 737 in Sitka, Alaska, when they experienced a bird strike during takeoff. The pilots managed to keep their aircraft and passengers safe after the mechanically devastating incident involving an eagle.

Cleary and Hendrix were in charge of 134 passengers, five crew members and a full cargo hold when preparing to take off on Aug. 8, 2010. As the plane accelerated down the runway, Cleary saw an eagle in the path ahead, according to the ALPA. Seconds later, at approximately 150 mph, the eagle smashed into the left engine, which exploded and burst into flames.

The airplane lurched left, and Cleary “quickly and calmly...called out ‘Abort! My aircraft!’ and swiftly started emergency procedures to abort the takeoff and maintain control of the yawing B-737,” according to the ALPA. Cleary fought to stop the airplane as 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, according to ALPA.

Alaska Airlines System Chief Pilot Captain Tom Kemp said Cleary and Hendrix’s actions during the aborted takeoff are exemplary of the skill and training of commercial airline pilots.

“This could have had a tragic ending, but for a split-second decision and meticulous execution of the aborted take-off that safely brought the aircraft to a stop before the end of the runway. The prevention of a hull loss and the fact that no one was injured speaks to the professionalism of our crew,” Kemp said in a news release.

Captain Lee Moak, president of ALPA, commended the two pilots’ skill and courage.

“Captain Cleary and First Officer Hendrix performed their duties flawlessly,” he said. “The actions they took in the harrowing seconds after the bird strike exemplify the ultimate measure of the pilots’ skill, training, teamwork and professionalism.”

Cleary said he was relieved that the potentially catastrophic situation ended in the best possible way.

“When we came to a stop and the smoke and the engine parts quit rolling by, I was very happy to be sitting in the middle of the runway with room to turn around,” he said.

Cleary also gave credit to the entire team, including his flight attendants, Ken Allen, Deborah McMahan and Pam Nobis.

“They made me look good,” he said. “While I was doing a one-engine taxi on the wet runway, Michael was talking to CFR, flight service, headquarters, etc. The flight attendants were calming the passengers after seeing fire on the number one engine before we shut down. What a great crew!”

In January 2009, the term “bird strike” worked its way into airline vernacular when Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger and crew safely landed their Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after birds took out both engines on the plane. Video footage of the incident helped propel Sullenberger to national hero status, with images of the plane perfectly touching down in the middle of the Hudson broadcast across the country and world.


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