Syracuse (US), Oct 6: An American Airlines co-pilot made a mid-flight diversion and safely landed the plane after the captain became ill and died, an airline spokeswoman has said.
American Airlines Flight 550 left Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. local time Sunday en route to Boston, spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said. After the captain was stricken, the first officer landed the plane in Syracuse shortly before 7 am yesterday, with 147 passengers and five crew members onboard, she said.
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, Texas-based airline said yesterday.
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 in 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 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 rumours 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 US airlines and one charter pilot have died during flights since 1994.