RFT 570: 21-Plane Owner John Hanson


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There were more than 400 people on board the Boeing 747-400 that unexpectedly rolled into a left bank in Russian airspace over the Bering Sea, forcing pilots to maneuver to keep the airplane from rolling over and diving into the ocean.

The senior captain on that airplane was John Hanson, who helped maintain control of the plane and fly it while also trying to determine what was wrong with the plane and how to make adjustments.

Landing in Russia would not be ideal, and the decision was made to change course to Alaska.

Hanson, a Northwest Airlines captain, was recently honored for helping to prevent this potentially catastrophic aircraft accident and saving hundreds of lives Oct. 9, 2002. He was presented with the Superior Airmanship Award by the Air Line Pilots Association, International during the association's annual Air Safety Forum.

Although the situation above the Bering Sea that day could have been a scene out of an action-packed movie, the difference with the actual event was that there was no super hero -- there was teamwork, Hanson said.

"Teamwork got us through this thing," Hanson said. "I'll take compliments for the landing, but I'm more proud of being a team leader."

Hanson has flown for Northwest Airlines for 35 years and during that time has never experienced a situation in the air that has been so dramatic.

"That malfunction -- the manufacturer said it could never happen," Hanson said. "We had no procedure to follow."

What the crew found out later was that a mechanical malfunction resulting from equipment blowing apart caused the problems.

"Experts in structures have since analyzed the parts -- they can't find the cause," Hanson said. "Obviously, it blew apart."

There is no suspicion of foul play, Hanson said, but was rather a "freak deal."

Working with Hanson during the ordeal was another captain and two co-captains -- the plane had two sets of pilots since the flight from Detroit to Tokyo was so long. Hanson credits his co-captain with a quick recovery "that probably saved the plane."

Hanson was reading in his bunk in a private room for the pilots when the malfunction occurred.

"We were in smooth air and suddenly there was a violent shift," he said.

There were no windows in the room. Hanson quickly put his uniform on to go assess the situation. When he arrived in the cockpit, the pilots were fighting to control the plane, he said.

The cockpit operating manual was open and the pilots were desperately trying to find information on the problem.

Hanson and his co-pilot starting going through the manual as well but they could find no information that pertained to what was happening. An emergency situation was declared and the decision was made to head back to Anchorage.

Because of their location, communication with the ground was difficult and contact was made through San Francisco to Minneapolis using what Hanson calls the "old fashioned type of radio." A conference call was held to discuss the problem.

"We needed to work as a team and put all our heads together," he said.

As senior captain, Hanson decided he should be the pilot who landed the plane, and after discussion with the other pilots he took over the controls. The pilots actually had to take turns handling the plane since managing the controls required strength and stamina because of the malfunction.

To counteract the highly technical problem, pilots manually applied pressure to a foot pedal. At this point, the pilots were still not sure about the exact nature of the mechanical failure.

"I would have given $1,000 for a rear view mirror to have just looked at the tail," Hanson said.

A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation revealed that the lower rudder failed in left hard over position at 17 degrees of travel, which was full deflection for their airspeed in cruise flight. It remained fully deflected for the rest of the flight.

The decision was made to fly at a lower altitude where the air is not as thin, Hanson said, and they did not have to operate as "close to the edge." They went down to 28,000 feet but could not go lower because of the mountains.

Early in the crisis it was decided to make the flight attendants part of the team, and information was shared regularly with them. They were told by the pilots that being able to land safely was in question, and once the plane was landed it might not be able to stay on the ground because of the problem.

The lead flight attendant received the information about the problem so plans could be made for an emergency landing.

Hanson then brought the plane down to 14,000 feet over Cook Inlet, where there was communication with Anchorage about the emergency landing. Hanson said they were low enough for thick air but high enough to recover if necessary.

"Since we didn't know the nature of the problem, we wanted to slow down and extend the flaps very gradually," he said. "We all decided on this plan. We picked the inlet over land to have more room for recovery instead of being over the mountains."

He and the other pilots had talked extensively about which runway to use based on what was happening with the plane, the wind and other factors.

"All the pilots talked about the advantages and disadvantages, he said.

During the landing, Hanson said the plane came in just a little bit faster than normal. He told the flight attendants it would be a "firm" landing. The pilots were also nervous the rudder would give bad directions to the plane's nose wheel.

"As it turned out, it was a fairly smooth landing," he said.

The flight attendants were told people could remain seated -- there was no need to evacuate. Since people on the ground had seen that the wheels and brakes "had been bright red" the plane waited in a remote spot to cool down.

The only awkward moment on the ground was that customs was not prepared to handle 418 people coming in so it took awhile to get everyone off the plane, Hanson said.

After leaving the plane, Hanson went to look at the rudder where the problem had occurred.

"We looked up at this huge rudder hard over to the left and we just shook our heads -- wow, what an evening," Hanson said.

Another 747-400 was sent to Anchorage to transport passengers to Tokyo the next day, and though the pilots were told they did not have to go up again, all of them did.

"Every single passenger also got on," Hanson said.

The pilots involved with the incident have since made a training video that is being used for crews. It demonstrates that not all emergencies are in the book.

Pilots at this level through their years of experience are a valuable source of information, he said, and involving people from the first moment allows them to be able to help.

The Hollywood version of this story would have one pilot acting as the hero, but "in real life, heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances," Hanson said.

Hanson has been flying since he was in his teens, and before he had even graduated college he was hired as a commercial pilot. Despite lucrative offers from airlines, he balanced college and eventually graduate work while flying.

Hanson turns 56 this month and regulations require he retire when he is 60. When he retires as a commercial pilot, Hanson said he will continue flying as a hobby, particularly antique airplanes.

Hanson said a truly successful career involves no "emergency" moments such as he had one year ago. Exciting moments for him, he said, are beautiful sunsets viewed from the plane, and traveling over the Canadian Rockies and Alaskan Wilderness.

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