Alaska Flight 261 Pilots Awarded ALPA Gold Medal

Air Line Pilot, March 2001, p. 22
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

Two Alaska Airlines pilots who fought until their last moments to regain control of their MD-80 despite an inoperative horizontal stabilizer have been honored with ALPA’s Gold Medal for Heroism in a special ceremony in Seattle.

Capt. Duane E. Woerth, ALPA’s president, presented the medals posthumously to the families of Capt. Ted Thompson and First Officer William Tansky on January 31, the first anniversary of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. Capt. Thompson, First Officer Tansky, and 86 others—a number of them employees of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air—died in the waters off Point Hueneme, Calif., on a flight from Puerta Vallarta to San Francisco.

Capt. Cress Bernard (Alaska), an ALPA executive vice-president, noted that ALPA’s Gold Medal for Heroism is a rare honor, awarded only upon the unanimous vote of the Association’s Executive Council and only on 11 other occasions. In the case of the Flight 261 crew, Capt. Bernard said, "This decision was easy."

As the two pilots tried to identify the source of the problem, they asked to take the airplane over water to protect those on the ground and had the cabin attendants ready the passengers for an emergency landing.

A catastrophic failure of the jackscrew assembly ultimately rendered their MD-80’s horizontal stabilizer useless, but the pair used superior piloting skills and textbook cockpit resource management to try to control the airplane.

Using novelist Ernest Hemingway’s definition of heroism as "grace under pressure," Capt. Bernard said the two men demonstrated, as the plaques received by their families said, "exemplary courage, consummate professionalism, and heroism" in trying to save the lives of their passengers, fellow crew members, and those on the ground as they struggled with the disabled airplane. They showed, Capt. Bernard said, "amazing grace under unbelievable pressure."

Capt. Woerth concurred: "Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.’ Nothing could better exemplify this than the extraordinary bravery these pilots demonstrated in the final five minutes, even the last few seconds, of their final flight."

After the catastrophic failure and with the flight controls compromised, the airplane pitched over uncontrollably and rolled inverted. "Even in this unimaginably difficult position," Capt. Woerth added, "the two pilots worked as a team in an unflagging effort to right the aircraft and stay airborne.

"What these heroes have done reflects on all of us. Their gift to us, their legacy, is a majestic testimony to our profession," ALPA’s president said.

Capt. Bill Wolf, who served as the coordinator of the ALPA team participating in the NTSB’s investigation of the Flight 261 accident, noted in his remarks that several persons associated with the Safety Board’s investigation reviewed the cockpit voice recording from the fatal flight and "relayed that they had never heard a more professional crew from start to finish.… Safety and concern for their passengers and crew were always first and foremost for the two pilots. Their extensive experience and training were evident and well utilized. They never lost their focus in trying to recover the ailing aircraft."

Capt. Wolf noted that a special memento had been prepared for Flight 261’s investigators, based on a Bible passage from the book of Luke whose chapter and verse corresponded with the time of the accident. The passage, translated into Athabascan (a language indigenous to Indians in Alaska’s interior), expressed a simple but eloquent sentiment: "Let us not forget."

Capt. Thompson and First Officer Tansky received additional accolades in February from Aviation Week & Space Technology, which named them among the recipients of its annual Aerospace Laurels. The awards committee, citing the pair’s calm demeanor and attention to correct procedures despite a rapidly deteriorating situation, praised the men "for their extraordinary demonstration of professionalism and bravery in the face of certain disaster."