Bos­ton-bound pi­lot dies; co-pi­lot lands safely in NY

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL -

An Amer­i­can Air­lines cap­tain be­came gravely ill and in­ca­pac­i­tated while fly­ing from Phoenix to Bos­ton and later died, but his first of­fi­cer safely di­verted and landed the plane, an air­line spokes­woman said.

Pas­sen­gers on the flight were told the pi­lot was sick and it was mak­ing an emer­gency land­ing in Syra­cuse, and they later learned of his death in a sce­nario that’s rare but not un­heard-of: Seven pilots for U.S. air­lines and one char­ter pi­lot have died dur­ing flights since 1994, the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion says.

Amer­i­can Flight 550 left Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. lo­cal time Sun­day and was di­verted mid-flight, land­ing shortly af­ter 7 a.m. EDT, Amer­i­can spokes­woman An­drea Huguely said. Af­ter the flight’s cap­tain was stricken, the first of­fi­cer safely took over with 147 pas­sen­gers and five crew mem­bers on­board.

“Amer­i­can 550. Med­i­cal emer­gency. Cap­tain is in­ca­pac­i­tated,” the first of­fi­cer calmly told the Syra­cuse air­port tower, re­quest­ing a run­way to land on.

In a record­ing of his ex­change with the tower, he ex­presses con­cern whether am­bu­lance medics can get on the plane quickly. He’s as­sured they can and is told to go into a gate where the medics would meet the plane.

De­tails of the med­i­cal emer­gency and the iden­tity of the dead pi­lot weren’t im­me­di­ately re­leased, and the air­line wouldn’t say when the death oc­curred.

“We are in­cred­i­bly sad­dened by this event, and we are fo­cused on car­ing for our pi­lot’s fam­ily and col­leagues,” the Fort Worth, Tex­as­based air­line said.

A re­place­ment crew was sent to Syra­cuse, and the plane, an Air­bus A320, landed in Bos­ton at 12:30 p.m.

Avi­a­tion ex­perts said there was never any dan­ger to pas­sen­gers be­cause pilots and co-pilots are equally ca­pa­ble of fly­ing the air­craft.

For­mer air­line pi­lot John Cox, an avi­a­tion safety con­sul­tant, said when one pi­lot be­comes un­able to fly the other will rely on help from the plane’s au­to­mated sys­tems and get pri­or­ity treat­ment from air traf­fic con­trollers.

“The pas­sen­gers were not dan­ger, ab­so­lutely not,” he said.

Be­fore the flight landed in Syra­cuse, the first of­fi­cer called the air­port tower and said in a calm voice, “Amer­i­can 550. Med­i­cal emer­gency. Cap­tain is in­ca­pac­i­tated.” He re­quested a run­way to land on.

In a record­ing of his ex­change with the tower, he ex­presses con­cern whether am­bu­lance medics can get on the plane quickly. He’s as­sured they can and is told to go into a gate where the medics

in would meet the plane.

Pas­sen­ger Louise An­der­son, who was head­ing from Reno, Ne­vada, to Bos­ton via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight.

“What I woke up to was the flight at­ten­dant telling us we were mak­ing an emer­gency land­ing be­cause the pi­lot was ill,” she said.

She said ru­mors of the pi­lot’s death cir­cu­lated in the Syra­cuse air­port but were con­firmed only by an an­nounce­ment on their makeup flight to Bos­ton.

An­der­son said the mood on board then was somber, but she com­mended the crew’s han­dling of a tragic sit­u­a­tion.

Air­line pilots must pass phys­i­cal ex­ams ev­ery 12 months, ev­ery six months for cap­tains 40 or older.

Steve Wal­lace, who led the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions of­fice from 2000 to 2008, said it’s rare for a pi­lot to be­come in­ca­pac­i­tated. Ac­cord­ing to the FAA, seven pilots for U.S. air­lines and one char­ter pi­lot have died dur­ing flights since 1994.

Cap­tains and co-pilots usu­ally take turns fly­ing and do­ing take­offs and land­ings, said for­mer air­line pi­lot James Record, who teaches avi­a­tion at Dowl­ing Col­lege in Oak­dale, N.Y.

“The ad­van­tage to that is the copi­lot gets an equal amount of ex­pe­ri­ence and the cap­tain gets to see how the other guy flies,” he said.

Record noted the co-pi­lot re­mained calm while de­scrib­ing the emer­gency and re­quest­ing per­mis­sion from air traf­fic con­trollers to land.

“He was do­ing what he’s trained to do — fly the plane,” Record said. “He was prob­a­bly more con­cerned with the health of his buddy, his crew mem­ber,” than his abil­ity to fly.

Mod­ern air­lin­ers are ca­pa­ble of largely fly­ing them­selves. There’s de­bate in avi­a­tion cir­cles about whether over-re­liance on au­to­ma­tion is erod­ing pilots’ fly­ing skills. In­ci­dents like Mon­day’s help en­sure reg­u­la­tors won’t al­low un­manned cock­pits or un­ac­com­pa­nied pilots any­time soon.

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