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Cali Owings, Published October 23 2013

Exhibit honors Fargo pilot; parents say son was 'hero' in 2008 emergency landing

FARGO – A new exhibit at the Fargo Air Museum honors Capt. Steve Peterka, a local pilot responsible for making a remarkable emergency landing here when a flight attendant set fire to the bathroom on a flight headed to Canada.

Peterka, familiar with Fargo air because he learned to fly here, was able to land the Compass Airlines plane from 32,000 feet within eight minutes and 30 seconds, guiding 76 passengers and crew members to safety.

Mary Peterka, Steve’s mother, said the airline kept quiet about her son’s heroics because the fire was started by a flight attendant and the FBI was investigating the incident. The flight attendant pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to more than six years in prison.

“The hero was never covered because of the timing and the airline,” she said.

Now, a full description of the extraordinary landing and uniforms, medals and awards from Steve Peterka’s versatile flying career are on display at the Fargo Air Museum.

Mary and Robert Peterka saw the exhibit for the first time Wednesday morning. With storytelling skills they said their son shared, the Peterkas recalled memories of the late pilot.

After a life-threatening illness in high school, Steve was unable to play football for Fargo North High. So he started taking flying lessons and earned his wings by age 17.

“It really gave Steve something to live for again,” Robert Peterka said.

After graduating in 1985 from the University of Minnesota in Crookston, Steve Peterka put his agriculture aviation degree to use as a crop duster for Beck Aviation.

Throughout his flying career, Robert Peterka said Steve “pretty much did it all.” He worked as an air ambulance pilot in Fargo, a stunt pilot for Red Baron pizza and a commercial airline pilot. He even flew a fuel tanker for diamond miners in Africa.

While his 2008 emergency landing in Fargo is less well-known than the famous 2009 landing on the Hudson River, Steve Peterka was given the Air Line Pilots Association, International’s “Superior Airmanship Award” one year before his death.

In addition an in-flight fire and having to land the plane quickly from 32,000 feet, Peterka and his first officer had trouble reaching air traffic control and couldn’t communicate with flight attendants onboard because their oxygen masks interfered with their headsets.

Mary Peterka said no one has been able to repeat the execution of that landing.

Because of her son’s risky flying career, Mary Peterka said she “always expected a call” that her son had died in an airplane incident.

Ultimately, flying did not take her son. Steve Peterka, 46, died in a car crash in 2010 near Carrington.

Happy to see her son honored at the air museum, Mary Peterka said she hoped the exhibit would “inspire young people to go into the field of aviation.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599