When the pilot of a Continental Airlines flight from Brussels, Belgium, to Newark, N.J., died mid-flight yesterday, Belgian cardiologist Julien Struyven was the first physician in the cockpit. There was nothing he could do to save the pilot’s life, he said in an interview with Boston.com today.
“When I arrived in the cockpit, it was already too late. The pilot was dead. I tried to resuscitate him, but was unsuccessful. There is very little you can do aboard an airplane over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Even if I had been able to revive him, it is impossible to say whether we could have found a landing site quickly enough. You can only perform CPR on a patient for so long.”
Struyven, 72, a specialist in cardiology and radiology, is a professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in the Belgian capital. He said that the pilot’s precise cause of death cannot be determined without an autopsy, but based on his professional experience, he was “99 percent sure” that it was a heart attack.
The Boeing 777’s pilot never had a chance, said Struyven.
“At first, the co-pilots thought he had fallen asleep. When that turned out not to be the case, they immediately called for a doctor. But these cases unfold in a matter of minutes. By the time I arrived in the cockpit, two-three minutes had elapsed. It takes another minute before you can really get to work. At that point, the pilot was dead.”
Struyven lauded the crew’s professionalism. “They handled the emergency flawlessly,” he said. “There was no danger at any point. The passengers and part of the crew never knew what was happening. There was no need to tell them and cause a panic. There was no safety issue at all, because the plane had three other pilots onboard.”
The pilot’s body was moved to one of two built-in bunks in the cockpit. The plane landed safely at Newark International Airport at 11:49 EST.
For Struyven, it was not the first time he had been called on in flight. “Those other cases were rather innocent,” he said. “Nothing worse than gastritis or a passenger feeling unwell for a few minutes. I have never seen anything this critical on a plane.”
Posted by Tom Vandyck, Globe correspondent
Photo of Continental flight 61 from Belgium landing in Newark by Westwood One/Metro Networks via AP.