NEW YORK – For the passengers of Continental Airlines Flight 61 from Brussels, the landing Thursday morning was nothing but routine at Newark’s fog-covered, rain-drenched Liberty International Airport, after an exhausting if unremarkable eight-hour haul across the Atlantic.
But for the crew, the flight and the landing were anything but routine.
The plane’s 60-year-old pilot collapsed about midway through the flight. A Belgian physician called to the cockpit was unable to revive the captain with a defibrillator and pronounced him dead. Two co-pilots moved the captain’s body to an empty seat in a crew rest area, and they took command of the Boeing 777 aircraft for the remainder of the flight.
The plane landed safely at 11:47 a.m., slightly ahead of schedule, pulling up to the terminal with most of the 247 passengers unaware of the emergency. The co-pilot even made the normal landing announcement.
“No fear, no panic – everyone was calm,” passenger Martha Love said in an interview on NY1 television. “It was fine.”
“There was no indication to us that there was any problem with the flight,” said another passenger, John Cavilia, also interviewed on NY1. “We thought it was a problem with a passenger. There was very little talk about it.”
The co-pilots instructed the flight attendants to tell anyone who inquired that there had been an illness.
The captain, who was based in Newark and had been with Continental for 32 years, apparently died of natural causes, the airline said in a statement.
Aviation experts and the airline said the other members of the cockpit crew – in this case the co-pilot and a relief pilot – were trained for precisely that type of emergency: incapacity of the captain.
While it is highly unusual for pilots to die in flight, there have been other instances. Two months ago in Florida, a passenger with some pilot training took the controls of a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air heading to Jackson, Miss., with four people on board after the pilot died, and the passenger landed the plane safely with help from air traffic controllers. And in 2007, another Continental pilot, who was 57, died shortly after taking off on a flight from Houston to Mexico, but the co-pilots safely landed that plane with 210 passengers on board.
There have been six such deaths since 1994, according to the FAA. Four of the pilots were in their mid-50s. The youngest – a 48-year-old – died during a flight in 1995.
Thurday’s incident raises anew questions about the age and health of pilots. In 2007, Congress changed federal law to allow pilots to continue flying until age 65, instead of 60, after pilots successfully argued that the industry needed more experience in the cockpit and that demographic changes showed that older Americans were living longer and leading healthier lives.
The FAA said commercial airline captains over 40 get medical examinations every six months. Most other pilots must have yearly examinations.
Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, who was hailed as a national hero in January after successfully landing a crippled US Airways flight on the Hudson River, is 58 years old.
Aviation safety experts say age alone is a poor predictor of sudden death, particularly cardiac arrest. “I don’t think anybody has ever found an accident caused by a disabled crew member in a multi-crew environment,” said William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation.