Plane lands safely after pilot dies mid-flight

By Adam Goldman and Victor Epstein
Associated Press / June 19, 2009
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NEWARK - The pilot of a Continental Airlines flight from Brussels to Newark died over the Atlantic Ocean yesterday, but the jet landed safely with two copilots at the controls.

The 247 passengers aboard Flight 61 were not told of the pilot’s death and flight attendants continued serving snacks, though the crew did ask for the help of any doctors aboard.

Several passengers approached the cockpit, including one doctor who said the pilot appeared to have suffered a heart attack.

The 60-year-old Newark-based pilot, who worked for Continental for 32 years, is believed to have died of natural causes, said Kelly Cripe, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based airline.

A relief pilot was on board, Cripe said. The Boeing 777 touched down on time just before noon at Newark Liberty International Airport.

“The flight continued safely with two pilots at the controls,’’ Cripe said in a statement.

Dr. Julien Struyven, 72, a cardiologist and radiologist from Brussels who was aboard, responded to the call for doctors and examined the pilot.

“He was not alive,’’ Struyven said. There was “no chance at all’’ of saving him, he said.

Struyven said he suspected the pilot had a heart attack. He said he used a defibrillator to try to revive the pilot, but it was too late.

Tom Donaldson, a former leader of the Continental pilots’ union who flies Boeing 767 jets for the airline, said pilots must pass an extensive physical every six months to remain qualified to fly. The exam includes an electrocardiogram, blood pressure check, and an eye test.

Martha Love, a passenger from Greenwich, N.J., who was sitting in the first row of the plane, said passengers were not told exactly what was going on.

“No one knew,’’ she said. She only became concerned after the plane landed, when she saw fire trucks and emergency vehicles lined up along the runway.

Simon Shapiro, a passenger from Brooklyn, N.Y., was also unaware of the drama.

“I didn’t hear anything or see anything,’’ Shapiro said. “I was wondering why there were so many cops.’’

As a precaution, the airport’s emergency crews were sent to meet the plane.

Passenger Kathleen Ledger, 45, of Bethlehem, Pa., said she learned about what happened when her cellphone rang after the plane landed.

“My husband called me and told me,’’ she said.

She said she was impressed with the way the flight crew handled themselves - including serving snacks during the crisis - and doesn’t think passengers should have been informed of the death during the flight.

“They did an incredible job,’’ she said. “I would have done the exact same thing.’’

In 2007, another Continental pilot died at the controls after becoming ill during a flight from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The plane landed safely with a copilot at the controls.

Donaldson said a third pilot is on board for long trans-Atlantic flights in case the captain or first officer becomes tired.

He said there is no specific training on how to react when a crew member becomes incapacitated, but either member of a two-pilot crew can fly the plane.