American Airlines pilot who died mid-flight identified

American Airlines Capt. Michael Johnston. CBS AFFILIATE KUTV

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — An American Airlines captain who became gravely ill and incapacitated while flying from Phoenix to Boston and later died, has been identified.

American Airlines released a statement late Monday night saying the 57-year-old pilot has been identified as Phoenix-based Captain Michael Johnston. The pilots first officer safely diverted and landed the nearly 150-passenger plane when he fell ill, an airline spokeswoman said.

“All of us at American extend our condolences to Mike’s wife, Betty Jean, and to his entire family. They have lost a husband and father, and many of you have lost a personal friend,” the statement read.

CBS affiliate KUTV reports that Johnston lives in West Jordan, Utah, and has been flying for well over 25 years according to his family. BJ Johnston, his wife, says she’s been told that her husband likely died of a heart attack.

She says her husband had a double bypass surgery in 2006. Since that time he has been required to get a physical every six months to make sure he was healthy enough to fly.

“He has had problems with his heart,” Johnston’s wife told KUTV. “He seemed perfectly fine.”

Johnston says her husband was in good health when he left recently to begin flying. She says her husband’s body will be flown to Utah by tomorrow.

According to a press release from the Onondaga County Medical Examiners Office, Johnston died in flight of natural causes. The investigation is ongoing.

A graduate of Brigham Young University, Johnston began his career with America West Airlines in January 1990 as a first officer on the Dash-8. He later flew the 737 and the 757, before being upgraded to captain on the A320, according to the American Airlines statement.

American Flight 550 left Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. local time Sunday and was diverted mid-flight, landing shortly after 7 a.m. EDT, American spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said. After the captain was stricken, the first officer took over with 147 passengers and five crew members onboard.

syracuse pilot died

A passenger took this photo of the ambulance that came to American Airlines Flight 550 after it made an unscheduled landing in Syracuse on Oct. 5, 2015.

PASSENGER JIM SMITH VIA CBS BOSTON

In audio from the cockpit obtained by CBS Boston by Live ATC.net, which provides live air traffic control broadcasts, the co-pilot is heard calling the control tower, “A medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated, request handling for runway one zero landing.”

In a recording of his exchange with the tower, he expresses concern over whether ambulance medics can get on the plane quickly. He is assured they can and is told to go into a gate where the medics would meet the plane.

“We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot’s family and colleagues,” the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline said.

A replacement crew was sent to Syracuse, and the plane, an Airbus A320, landed in Boston at 12:30 p.m.

Aviation experts said there was never any danger to passengers because pilots and co-pilots are equally capable of flying.

Ex-airline pilot John Cox, an aviation safety consultant, said when one pilot becomes unable to fly the other will rely on help from the plane’s automated systems and get priority treatment from air traffic controllers.

“The passengers were not in danger, absolutely not,” he said.

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

She said rumors of the pilot’s death circulated in the Syracuse airport but were confirmed only by an announcement on their makeup flight to Boston.

Anderson said the mood on board then was somber, but she commended the crew’s handling of a tragic situation.

Airline pilots must pass physical exams every 12 months, every six months for captains 40 or older.

Captains and co-pilots usually take turns flying and doing takeoffs and landings, said former airline pilot James Record, who teaches aviation at Dowling College in Oakdale.

“The advantage to that is the co-pilot gets an equal amount of experience and the captain gets to see how the other guy flies,” he said.

Record noted the co-pilot remained calm while describing the emergency and requesting permission from air traffic controllers to land.

“He was doing what he’s trained to do — fly the plane,” Record said. “He was probably more concerned with the health of his buddy, his crew member,” than his ability to fly.

Modern airliners are capable of largely flying themselves. There’s debate in aviation circles about whether over-reliance on automation is eroding pilots’ flying skills. Incidents like Monday’s help ensure regulators won’t allow unmanned cockpits or unaccompanied pilots anytime soon.

Passenger Louise Anderson, heading from Reno, Nevada, to Boston via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight.

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