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27 September 2013

United Airlines captain dies after suffering heart attack during flight

26 September 2013, United Airlines; 737-900; flight 1603; near Boise, ID: A United Airlines captain suffered a heart attack while en route on a scheduled flight from Houston, TX to Seattle, WA. Although the captain received prompt treatment while in flight and after the aircraft made an unscheduled landing in Boise, ID, he was pronounced dead after arriving at a local hospital. The flight later continued onward to Seattle with a replacement pilot.

According to several media reports, after the 63-year-old pilot was stricken, two passengers, both military physicians stationed in Washington State, attended to the pilot, and the remaining pilot, as well as an off-duty United pilot who was also on board, made an emergency landing in Boise, ID. An autopsy performed the following day confirmed that the pilot had died of a heart attack.

Selected previous events
This was not the first time that an airline pilot was incapacitated during a flight. The following are just some of the more recent events:

  • 20 January 2012 - A 44-year-old reserve first officer of a UTair 757 suffered a heart attack while en route from Chengdu, China to Novosibirsk, Russia. Although the pilot received prompt medical attention, including help from a passenger who was a cardiologist, the pilot died before the crew could make an emergency landing. The pilot was in the cockpit, but not at the controls, when he suffered a heart attack. In April of that same year, a UTair ATR72 crashed in Russia, killing dozens of passengers.

  • 14 October 2010 - The 43-year-old captain of a Qatar Airways A330-300 suffered a massive heart attack roughly an hour after takeoff during a flight from Manila to Doha, Qatar. The first officer diverted the aircraft to Kuala Lumpur, where the pilot was pronounced dead after the plane arrived.

  • 14 June 2010 - About an hour into a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, the first officer of an American Airlines 767 felt ill and was unable to continue with his flying duties. There were no off-duty pilots on board, and the captain chose to have a flight attendant with several hundred hours of flight experience provide assistance for the remainder of the flight.

  • 18 June 2009 - The captain of a Continental Airlines 777-200 died while en route from Brussels, Belgium to Newark, NJ. The 60-year-old captain was replaced by a reserve first officer and the crew declared an emergency. The aircraft landed without further incident.

  • 28 January 2008 - The first officer of an Air Canada 767 on a scheduled flight from Toronto to London became mentally incapacitated and the captain needed he help of several flight attendants to physically remove the first officer from the cockpit. The captain, along with the help of a flight attendant who held a commercial multiengine license, diverted the aircraft to Shannon, Ireland.

How frequent are these events?Y
While accidents involving serious injury or death to pilots or crew are routinely reported to civil aviation authorities around the world, deaths, injuries, or incapacitations due to natural causes are not. While there are many media reports of such incidents, especially in recent years with the increased use of social media, there are few formal studies of incidents of pilot incapacitations. One of them is a 2004 study from the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institue, which found that in the six-year period from 1993 and 1998 there were 39 cases where a U.S. airline flight crew member was unable to perform any flight duties and 11 cases where the flight crew member was impaired and could only perform limited flight duties.

These 50 cases occurred on 47 different flights (two crew members were affected on three of the 47 flight). Four of these events involved a crew member death, all due to cardiac arrest. According to the FAA, in seven of these events the safety of the flight was seriously affected:

  1. A 737 first officer experienced an alcohol-withdrawal seizure, applied full right rudder, and slumped over the control wheel, causing a loss of altitude until flight attendants could pull the first officer off the controls.

  2. The foot of a DC9 first officer became lodged against a rudder pedal after his leg stiffened during a heart attack. The captain applied opposite rudder until the first officer's foot could be dislodged.

  3. The flight engineer and the captain of a 727 lost consciousness after the flight engineer accidentally depressurized the aircraft. The first officer donned an oxygen mask and made an emergency descent.

  4. A captain suffered an epileptic seizure while the aircraft was taxiing and applied enough force to the rudder to cause the aircraft to turn sharply and stop. The first officer removed the captain from the controls and taxied back to the gate.

  5. An A300 captain suffered a cerebral infarction during approach, and neglected to lower the landing gear. After landing, the captain applied reverse thrust longer than necessary, and attempted to apply takeoff thrust on the taxiway.

  6. An MD88 Delta Airlines captain, who was using unapproved contact lenses, misjudged his approach a LaGuardia Airport on 19 October 1996 during conditions of reduced visibility and struck approach lights near the end of the runway. The aircraft was substantially damaged, and three passengers received minor injuries during the evacuation.

  7. The captain and first officer of a DC8 cargo flight both had their judgement affected due to fatigue, and they allowed the aircraft to enter an unrecoverable approach stall while on a approach to the airbase at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The captain, first officer, and flight engineer were all seriously injured in the 18 August 1993 crash.


13 September 2013

Boeing releases annual airline safety summary

The main goal of is to provide the public with useful and reliable information about airline safety and security. One of the best sources for information about accident rates for specific airline models is Boeing's Statistical Summary of Commercial Airplane Accidents. The newest edition, covering the period from 1959 to 2012, was released in August 2013, and includes a variety of resources, including a summary of selected airliner crashes from 2012, as well as comparative data on the accident rates of various aircraft models.

This publication is very useful in part because it provides a snapshot of accident trends for different aircraft models and for different areas of the world. It is also useful for the audience because it provides a different point of view. These differences are most noticeable if you compare's safety review for 2012 with the list in the Boeing publication.

While there is some overlap between the two annual lists, particularly the crashes that resulted in passenger deaths, there are some key differences. Boeing, like much of the airline industry, has a focus on events that cause significant and unrepairable damage to aircraft, and their accident statistics reflect that focus. While does make note of a number of nonfatal events, only those events that result in passenger deaths are used in any statistical comparisons on the site. Also, Boeing does not list events, even ones involving passenger fatalities, if it involved aircraft designed in the former Soviet Union, or events involving turboprop driven airliners.

In spite of those differences, Boeing's Statistical Summary is one of the industry publications that has very high quality data, and should be consulted by anyone who has an interest in airline safety, especially to answer specific questions about airliner accident rates and how they have changed over the last several decades.

Related resources
2012 Boeing Statistical Summary
2011 Boeing Statistical Summary
2010 Boeing Statistical Summary
2009 Boeing Statistical Summary
2008 Boeing Statistical Summary
2007 Boeing Statistical Summary's fatal events by aircraft model

04 September 2013

The role of unidentified aerial phenomena in airline safety

Ongoing technological advances and other developments in the airline industry continue to lead to a greater understanding of the causes of accidents and incidents, one area that has not received much attention is unidentified aerial phenomena, also known as UAP. These are visual phenomena that occur in the sky that don't have a logical or rational explanation, even after a close review of the evidence by relevant experts.

Why UAP events are a safety issue
Unexplained aerial phenomena are important to aviation safety because some of these events are associated with effects to an aircraft's navigational or flight control systems, and also because sightings may cause flight crews to take abrupt, unplanned, and potentially hazardous maneuvers because the UAP is perceived as a threat to the aircraft.

NARCAP dedicated to studying UAP

NARCAP, the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to studying unexplained aerial phenomena (UAP) and their role in aviation safety. They regularly accept confidential submissions from pilots, air traffic controllers, and other aviation professionals who have witnessed UAP events, and have published a number of studies about UAP. You can find out more about NARCAP at

Interview with Dr. Richard Haines of NARCAP
Last month, Dr. Todd Curtis interviewed Dr. Richard Haines, the chief scientist of NARCAP, where they discussed his organization's efforts to reduce threats to aviation caused by unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).

Dr. Haines, who founded the organization in 1999, provided several examples of why unidentified aerial events may have put aircraft and their occupants at risk in the past, and also explained that such events happen to a significant fraction of active airline pilots. Dr. Haines also encouraged crew members who have observed such events to contact his organization at and file a report on any past sightings.
Listen to the interview (1:01:28)

NARCAP resources and research studies
NARCAP advice to pilots
Report unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP)
NARCAP technical reports