Co-pilot, crew praised for safely landing plane after pilot dies mid-flight

American Airlines thanked the crew of Flight 550 for their calm and compassion during the emergency landing.

An unnamed first officer for American Airlines and his crew have been praised for their composure as they safely landed a plane after the pilot became fatally ill mid-flight.

American Flight 550 was bound for Boston, leaving Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. Mountain time on Sunday, when Michael Johnston likely suffered a heart attack, his wife told KUTV-TV

Mr. Johnston’s co-pilot took control and safely brought the plane’s 147 passengers down in an emergency landing in Syracuse, N.Y., at 7 a.m., after the control tower assured him they would quickly send medics on board.

Once on ground, however, Johnston was soon pronounced dead. A pilot for 25 years, he was a Brigham Young University graduate, a husband, and a father.

A replacement crew continued passengers’ journey to Boston, where they arrived at 12:30 p.m. yesterday.

Travelers were told at the time that the pilot was ill but not immediately informed of his death. Passenger Peter McSwiggin told Boston's WCVB that a woman’s voice was “quivering” when she announced over the intercom that the pilot was sick.

"If it wasn't for the copilot using a cool head," Mr. McSwiggin added, "it might have been more disastrous."

According to aviation experts, the plane was never in danger, since pilots and co-pilots are equally prepared to fly, and can rely on cockpit technology to assist them in the case of an incapacitated pilot. Such incidents are rare: only eight pilots have died in-flight since 1994.

Nevertheless, airline employees, passengers, and consultants were deeply appreciative of the first officer’s calm handling of the situation, especially given how personally upsetting it would be to see his co-pilot in distress.

In an email to employees, American Airlines chief executive officer Doug Parker thanked crew members for taking “extraordinary care of Mike, each other and our customers” during Flight 550.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the teamwork this crew showed during an extremely difficult time,” Mr. Parker said. “Taking care of Mike's family is our focus now, and I know you'll join me in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.”

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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