DENVER - As Captain Micah Peery and First Officer Andrew Kinnear were preparing to land ExpressJet Flight 5912 at Denver International Airport on April 3, smoke billowed into the cockpit and cabin.
Within seconds, Peery could not see Kinnear sitting next to him.
"At that point, the smoke was so thick I had my head and chin over the steering column so I could see the instruments," recalled Peery, 37, of Bartlett, Tenn., near Memphis.
The smoke in the cabin of the Embraer 145 aircraft, where 19 passengers sat, was just as thick. "(The flight attendant) said she could hardly see her hand in front of her face," said Peery.
With his head less than a foot from the instrument panel, Peery was unable to look out of the window to see anything outside of the plane. He relied solely on the instruments and Kinnear to help him safely land the plane after several harrowing minutes.
For their heroism, Peery and Kinnear received the Superior Airmanship Award from the Air Line Pilots Association.
"There aren't a lot of words I can say. It is very humbling that they would choose us to get this award," Peery said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, formed in 1931, represents over 59,000 pilots in the United States and Canada. According to the group, the Superior Airmanship Award is among the highest honors they bestow on "professional pilots who, when faced with an extraordinarily challenging situation or event, displayed exceptional flying skills and abilities."
At the time of the incident, Peery and Kinnear, of Waukesha, Wis., had only flown together once before. They made a brief flight April 2, the day before the incident, from Chicago to Peoria, Ill., a flight that lasted only about 30 minutes.
Peery, who had a wife and three young children waiting for him back home in Bartlett, tried to focus only on landing the plane.
"I just knew I was going to fly it all the way to the ground, and everything was going to be fine," Peery said.
Peery and Kinnear were able to safely land the plane shortly after 6 p.m., less than five minutes after the smoke filled the plane. The flight attendant quickly evacuated the plane onto a cold, snowy runway in Denver.
"Some of the passengers were crying ... some were in shock. It was a surreal experience," Peery said.
An investigation conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration revealed the smoke was a result of an engine failure. The incident has not shaken his confidence in the safety of flying, Peery said.
"The odds that something is going to happen on your drive to the airport is much greater than something happening on the aircraft," Peery said. "It's the safest way to travel."