A Passenger’s Perspective On The Flight Where The Pilot Died

Filed Under: American, Travel

As I’m sure many of you have read by now, Sunday night’s AA550 flight from PHX-BOS was diverted to Syracuse after the pilot died in the cockpit during the flight.

I read the headline early Monday morning with some additional interest because I knew my best friend’s dad was on a redeye back home to Boston after visiting family here in Phoenix.

I didn’t think it would be his flight because he’s normally a pretty loyal Delta guy. But, my friend emailed a little later in the morning to tell me his dad was indeed onboard.

I had a chance to talk to him today about the flight and here’s what he told me.

The plane had a big and unexpected “bump” followed by a short descent just prior to an announcement from a member of the crew.

The very brief announcement indicated the pilot was sick and the copilot was taking over and would land the plane as quickly as possible.

Because he was in the back of the plane, he couldn’t see if there was any commotion near the cockpit. But, first class passengers said they couldn’t see anything either because everything took place in the cockpit.

5-10 minutes after the announcement they were on the ground in Syracuse and were met by paramedics and rescue crews right away.

All passengers were kept in their seats while the emergency responders boarded the plane. Eventually they put up a sheet at the front of the plane to obscure anyone’s view.

Then, about an hour after the flight landed the decision was made to deplane. At that point everyone made their way into the terminal and waited for an update from airport staff.

Passengers spent approximately three hours on the ground in Syracuse unaware of the exact reason for the diversion. Some people read on their phones that someone died. But it wasn’t until they finally boarded the flight to BOS with a new crew that they were told the pilot had died on the flight.

The final flight to BOS was uneventful as passengers processed the news. Upon landing, many passengers were met by media wanting to interview them about their experience. My friend’s dad just wanted to get home and get some sleep.

Hearing him describe the situation, I couldn’t help but think how well the entire situation was handled. It also drives home the importance of safety protocols like always having two people in the cockpit. And I’m thankful commercial pilots must undergo a full physical every six months to catch health problems that could lead to emergencies in the air like this.

It’s certainly a sad situation for the pilot’s family but very fortunate for everyone else on board that the crew handled the emergency remarkably well.

  1. My friend is an AA pilot and was friends with both the pilots on that flight. He’s devastated, especially since the pilot who died left behind a large, loving family. It’s sad.

  2. Sounds wired to me that no request for a doctor on board was made – also there probably was no space to perform a CPR in the cockpit ? Why was not attempt made to save his life ?

  3. The ‘bump’ described is likely the initial feeling of beginning the descent. The plane went from 34,000 ft to 31,400 ft in 6 seconds (http://flightaware.com/live/flight/AAL550/history/20151005/0659Z/KPHX/KSYR/tracklog) with a pretty rapid descent following. Usually an aircraft will descent at an initial rate of 1,500 fpm down to 800 fpm on final approach. This a/c was descending in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 fpm. Autopilot would have remained engaged until about 2 – 3 miles outside of touchdown since the pilot was flying solo. He would have needed all the help he could get – hence why he asked ATC to “contact company for a gate assignment” since this is normally done by the cockpit crew.

    Additionally, it took 18 minutes from diversion to landing whereas the passenger said 5 – 10 minutes. Passenger perceptions can be distorted when confined in an airplane.

  4. @lopere, I think it’s simply a typo, Andy meant in 60 seconds. If you look at the log that’s actually the case: 34,000 at 06:52:46 AM; 31,400 at 06:53:43 AM

  5. I was also surprised that none of the articles i read mentioned the crew finding out if there was a Dr. onboard, which I assume they did right away, but who knows.

  6. I was on the UA IAH-SEA diverted to BOI last year where the captain died. No privacy screen, captain was pulled to floor in galley and was having CPR performed on him during decent. We had a group of Army medics on board returning from a convention, so plenty of assistance. We were met by emergency vehicles at the plane right off the runway. Alternate captain was flown in from SFO. We were told he was still alive when removed from the plane but the next morning found out on the news he had passed away.

  7. @dmodemd – That’s interesting. I wondered if they didn’t ask about a doctor because they couldn’t let anyone else into the cockpit. Clearly in your situation that wasn’t a concern.

    According to media reports, there was at least one doctor on the flight (coming back from a meeting of the American College of Physicians). It’s worth pointing out one of the FAs was also a nurse and was seen going in and out of the cockpit (also according to media reports, my friend’s dad couldn’t see that).

  8. I don’t know why all the news stories make it seem remarkable that the copilot is able to land the plane on his own. That’s the whole point of the copilot. Usually, they’re former captains on smaller planes (737 pilot becomes 777 copilot for example) too.

  9. Wow, this was such a useful recount of what happened -_- – it’s not like pretty much everything he said was on the news already

  10. I’m not surprised that the doctor didn’t do anything – you Americans sue for everything so he was probably covering himself by not helping

  11. @Sam, I agree that we Americans are very lawsuit happy, but as, an example, if a paramedic breaks ribs while performing CPR and trying to save your life, the patient can’t sue for the injury (In my state anyway)

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