Port Vila, Vanuatu (PressExposure) June 19, 2009 -- Passengers were unaware their pilot of 32 years experience had died from a heart attack, mid flight, on a commercial Boeing 777, flying high over the Atlantic Ocean.
Dr. Julien Struyven, 72, a cardiologist and radiologist from Brussels happened to be aboard Continental Flight COA 61, on its way from Brussels to New Jersey, earlier this week and was able to quickly respond to the call for a doctor. Struyven examined the pilot, before announcing him dead. The crew removed the body to a crew rest area.
The co-pilot and a relief pilot landed the aircraft after taking over control. Passengers did not hear about the death on board, until after the plane had safely landed. A few had been aware something was wrong, but were not concerned.
All airlines must carry a captain, a first officer and a relief pilot on board any flight that is over an eight hour flight time. Flights that extend over 12 hours are required to have two complete sets of captains and first officers on board. Crews usually rotate on a 4 1/2 hour shift.
Speaking for the Houston-based airline, Kelly Cripe said, "The 60-year-old Newark-based pilot, is believed to have died of natural causes".
This is not the first incident when a pilot has died on board. A Continental flight between Texas and Mexico in January 2007, had to make an emergency landing when the pilot fell ill and died. The co-pilot landed the plane safely at a nearby Texan airport.
A Taiwanese China Airline in May 2000, turned back shortly after takeoff, as the pilot had suffered a heart attack. The pilot died shortly after arriving at hospital.
During the take-off procedure at Abu Dhabi airport, a pilot of a Gulf Airbus A-320, had a heart in March 1997. The plane skidded to an emergency stop.
However, the most spectacular incident took place in April 2009 when Doug White, took control and landed a twin engine plane, after the pilot went unconscious. White had flown a single-engine Cessna 172, but had never flown a twin engine King Air before. White had first obtained a license in 1990, but had only recently started flying again. The White family was returning from Marco Island where Doug's brother had just died from a heart attack.
The King Air continued to ascend, until White grabbed the controls. Listening intently to the air traffic controllers, White just did as he was told. He said later "It was a focused fear. I was in some kind of a zone that I can't explain".
56 year-old White safely landed the plane, thirty harrowing minutes later, following instructions from an air controller, who was receiving directions from a pilot who was familiar with the King Air aircraft.
The pilot never regained consciousness, but died in spite of all efforts to revive him, once they were on the ground.
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