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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.