An American Airlines captain became gravely ill and incapacitated while flying from Phoenix to Boston and later died, but his first officer safely diverted and landed the plane, an airline spokeswoman said.
Passengers on the flight were told the pilot was sick and it was making an emergency landing in Syracuse, and they later learned of his death in a scenario that’s rare but not unheard-of: Seven pilots for US airlines and one charter pilot have died during flights since 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration says, AP reported on Monday.
American Flight 550 left Phoenix at 11:55 pm local time Sunday and was diverted mid-flight, landing shortly after 7 am EDT, American spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said on Monday. After the flight’s captain was stricken, the first officer safely took over with 147 passengers and five crew members onboard.
“American 550. Medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated,” the first officer calmly told the Syracuse airport tower, requesting 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.
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.
A replacement crew was sent to Syracuse, and the plane, an Airbus A320, landed in Boston at 12:30 pm.
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.
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.