American Airlines Pilot Dies Midflight; FAA says Passengers Were Never at Risk


The American Airlines pilot who died Monday on a flight was an alarming experience for passengers and crew, but safety experts say passengers were never at risk because first officers are trained to fly airliners alone.

Louise Anderson, a passenger heading from Reno to Boston via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight. She said the mood on board was somber and she commended the crew’s handling of the situation.

“What I woke up to was the flight attendant telling us we were making an emergency landing because the pilot was ill,” she said.

While the death of a pilot during a flight could raise concern among uneasy fliers, the captain and first officer are each capable of flying commercial airliners alone. The Federal Aviation Administration requires two crew members in the cockpit at all times for just such an emergency.

Airline pilots get two physicals per year after 40 years old, as required by the FAA and are typically healthy people, said John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a consultant as head of Safety Operating Systems. FAA also has a mandatory retirement age of 65.

Before the medical appointment, the pilot fills out a medical history through part of the FAA’s website called MedXPress. Besides typical physical characteristics, the questions ask about medications, ailments such as vision or heart problems and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

A doctor — called an aviation medical examiner — then meets with the pilot to check vision, lungs, heart, abdomen, extremities for swelling that could signal heart failure and urine for possible diabetes or renal failure.

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SOURCE: Ben Mutzabaugh and Bart Jansen