An American Airlines pilot became suddenly ill and died mid-flight on an early morning trip to Boston.
Flight 550 left Phoenix at approximately 11:55 p.m. Sunday night and was supposed to land in Boston around 8 a.m. Monday morning. Syracuse Police Lieutenant Eric Carr confirmed that the 57-year-old pilot, who’s name has not yet been released, was found incapacitated at approximately 6:45 a.m, CBS News reports.
“Medical emergency, captain is incapacitated, request handling for runway,” the co-pilot said, according to transcripts of the flight’s communications with air traffic control.
Around 7:10 a.m. the plane, an Airbus 320 that was carrying 147 passengers and five crew members, was diverted to an airport in Syracuse, New York where the co-pilot safely landed. Firefighters were the first to respond and medics pronounced the pilot dead at the scene. He was later transported to the county medical examiner.
“This is a terribly sad event and American Airlines is focused on caring for the pilot’s family at this time, as well as the American Airlines staff and passengers on board the flight,” said an airline spokesperson.
@CNYcentral Our hearts are with the family of our employee who passed away today. We are focused on caring for his family and colleagues.— American Airlines (@AmericanAir) October 5, 2015
The passengers aboard flight 550 reported that there was a hard landing in Syracuse. One passenger told NBC News that they didn’t panic mostly because they were not immediately notified of the pilot’s death.
“We landed and had no idea what was going on,” said passenger Louise Anderson. “Airport security was waiting for us. They let us know that they were going to get another crew to fly us to Boston.”
Anderson reported that she slept most of the flight, but remembered hearing the pilots voice at the beginning of the flight.
“As he was announcing the weather for Boston he said it was going to be 79 or 80 degrees,” she said. “He had to correct himself.”
Another flight crew was sent to New York to fly the passengers to Boston. The passengers weren’t notified of the pilot’s death until the second flight.
Steve Wallace, former director of the FAA Office of Investigations, told WCVB that it is rare for a pilot to become incapacitated during a flight. Wallace led the FAA’s accident-investigations office from 2000 to 2008.
“What is important is the consistent result – the plane lands safely,” he said. “The co-pilot is fully qualified to fly the airplane. It’s rare, but they train for it.”
Emergencies like this one are the reason the FAA requires two crew members in the cockpit at all times. A flight attendant is required to step into the cockpit any time one of the pilots need to step out, but both the pilot and first officer of commercial airlines are capable of flying and landing the plane.
The FAA also requires every pilot to have two physicals each year after they turn 40-years-old and the mandatory retirement age is 65.
John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now the head of Safety Operating Systems, told USA Today that the passengers were never at risk.
“Pilots train for the incapacitation of another crew member,” said Cox. “This would have been something the first officer was trained to deal with.”
The passengers were flown safely to Boston where they landed around 12:30 p.m. A cause of death for the deceased 57-year-old pilot has not been released. An autopsy is being conducted, but Syracuse Police say there are no signs of foul play.
[Photo courtesy of Joe Raedle /Getty Images]