Above & Beyond: Why Trained for Life Matters
ALPA pilots are the best trained and most prepared in the world. They receive at least 1500 hours of training – cross country, at night and by instrument – before they are qualified to be your pilot. All that training represents more than a smooth flight, it means they are ready when the unplanned happens. In this series, see how training and experience matter when pilots encounter the unexpected at 30,000 feet.
Holiday Heroism: Amidst a series of electrical malfunctions and bad weather, a captain and his crew got their plane to safety
The day began with a smattering of clouds and fog with relatively low visibility — nothing too unusual for Captain James Judkins and First Officer Michael Oates. Delta Air Lines Flight 1990 had taken off from Atlanta Hartsfield on December 23, 2014, with more than 100 passengers and crewmembers on board. Destined for Savannah, Ga., many of the travelers were aiming to get home for the holidays.
But no more than 10 or so minutes in, their plans for a relatively uneventful flight were interrupted. At 8,000 feet, multiple electrical failures arose in the cockpit, disabling autopilot, auto throttle, display units and other systems.
At 8,000 feet, multiple electrical failures arose in the cockpit, disabling autopilot and other systems.
As the fog thickened, Judkins, a pilot with more than 20 years of experience, didn’t miss a beat. He quickly took the controls to fly manually as Oates began the troubleshooting procedures. Flying the plane in those conditions was like attempting surgery while the power goes in and out — a painstaking procedure.
Quick To Respond
In an emergency, all hands are on deck, especially for the pilots in the cockpit, because no one pilot can fully navigate a crisis safely on their own. Judkins enlisted the help of an off-duty pilot who was commuting home on Flight 1990’s jumpseat to troubleshoot.
Meanwhile, Judkins kept a cool head. The malfunctions the aircraft was experiencing were ones he had dealt with before in his training with Delta. Previous flight simulators and cockpit procedure trainers allowed him the opportunity to master not only normal operations, but also mitigate threats and triage emergency procedures. All of this allowed him to clearly and quickly think through what they needed to do.
He knew exactly which manuals they needed. As Oates and the off-duty pilot troubleshot, Judkins peppered them with questions about the electrical failures. Meanwhile, message after message continued to populate and then disappear from the cockpit displays. The pilots remained focused on finding the root cause of the malfunctions.
“We were just very matter of fact,” Judkins said. “We used what we knew to make [the best] decision.”
As they continued to soldier on despite the loss of their normal systems, the weather continued to worsen. And soon the pilots had figured out that the plane’s electrical generators were the likely culprits of all the mixed messages. Without those systems working properly, the aircraft would have to rely solely on emergency electrical power, which wasn’t nearly enough to continue on their flight path. They had to turn around.
Without those systems working properly, the aircraft would have to rely solely on emergency electrical power, which wasn’t nearly enough to continue on their flight path. They had to turn around.
Judkins declared an emergency with Air Traffic Control, who quickly sprung into action to help guide the plane right back to the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport.
Through the crisis, the flight attendants kept passengers calm. But the challenge was not over for Judkins and Oates. With Air Traffic Control’s constant input, Judkins had to make the complex approach into Hartsfield with only about a quarter of a mile of visibility. And he did this with no autopilot, no auto throttles and no flight director, and a trim system that was virtually useless — a very difficult proposition. Despite Judkins’ approach normally requiring at least a functional autopilot and auto throttle system, he and Oates nonetheless safely and expertly landed the plane on the runway.
For many on board, the 20-minute flight seemed like more of an inconvenience than an emergency, thanks to Judkins’ decades of experience and Oates’ quick deployment of troubleshooting procedures. Putting the safety of the plane, its crew and passengers first, Judkins and Oates were able to get passengers of Flight 1990 on their way to their holiday destinations, safe and sound.
To honor their quick thinking under pressure and extremely skillful emergency landing, Judkins and Oates received the Air Line Pilot Association, International’s 2014 Superior Airmanship Award. And in true pilot fashion, Judkins and Oates humbly accepted.
“It was amazing how fast we got through that,” Judkins said. “We did everything we could do and were trained to do.”