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American pilot dies, flight diverted to Syracuse

American Airlines planes at Miami Airport.
American Airlines planes at Miami Airport. AP archives

American Airlines pilot Michael Johnston died Monday after falling ill in the cockpit during a flight from Phoenix to Boston, prompting an emergency landing.

American Flight 550, carrying 147 passengers and five crew members, was diverted to Syracuse, N.Y., and landed safely with the co-pilot at the controls. Johnston, 57, was a Phoenix-based captain on the Airbus A320 for the airline. Details of his medical problem were not immediately released.

“Flight 550, an Airbus A320, diverted to Syracuse early this morning due to pilot illness,” the airline said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the pilot passed away. We are incredibly saddened by this event.”

The flight left Phoenix shortly before midnight and was diverted to Syracuse at 7:13 a.m. Eastern time.

American said a replacement crew was sent to Syracuse to fly the aircraft and the passengers to their final destination. Passengers arrived in Boston around 12:30 p.m. EDT.

An audio recording of communications between air traffic control and Flight 550 reveals the first officer calmly telling the controller: “Medical emergency. The captain is incapacitated” and requesting a runway for landing.

The controller and the first officer discuss getting medical personnel on the aircraft quickly as the plane descends for landing, and a decision is made to pull the aircraft into a gate to make it easier for medics to get on board.

Johnston began his flying career with America West Airlines in 1990 as a first officer on a Bombardier Dash 8. He also flew Boeing 737s and 757s before his promotion to captain on the A320.

In a letter to employees, American CEO Doug Parker extended condolences to Johnston’s wife, Betty Jean; and his family. He also thanked the crew members on Flight 550.

“They took extraordinary care of Mike, each other and our customers,” Parker said. “We couldn’t be more proud of the teamwork this crew showed during an extremely difficult time.”

Passenger Louise Anderson, who was heading from Reno, Nev., to Boston via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight.

“What I woke up to was the flight attendant telling us we were making an emergency landing because the pilot was ill,” she said, according to an Associated Press report.

She said rumors of the pilot’s death were circulating in the Syracuse airport and that it was later confirmed by an announcement on their makeup flight to Boston.

Anderson said the mood on board turned somber, but she commended the crew’s handling of a tragic situation.

Commercial pilots over 40 are required to have two medical exams each year and an annual electrocardiogram. Pilots also use simulators to train for various emergency situations including one where a pilot may become incapacitated during takeoff and the second pilot has to take over flying the aircraft.

This is not the first time a commercial pilot has had a medical emergency while piloting an aircraft. According to the FAA, seven pilots for U.S. airlines and one charter pilot have died during flights since 1994.

In 2013, Capt. Henry Skillern, 63, suffered a heart attack while he was piloting United Airlines Flight 1603 from Houston to Seattle. The flight, which had 161 passengers, made an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho, and Skillern was taken to a local hospital where he later died.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

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