American Airlines pilot dies mid-flight from apparent heart attack

Co-pilot executed smooth emergency landing after Capt Michael Johnston fell ill en route to Boston

(Image credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The wife of an American Airlines pilot who collapsed and died during a flight from Phoenix to Boston believes he probably had a heart attack.

Capt Michael Johnston was flying the plane, which was carrying 147 passengers and five crew members, when he died, leaving the first officer to make an emergency landing in Syracuse.

His wife Betty Jean Johnston told NBC News that he had undergone double heart bypass surgery in 2006 but had otherwise been in good health.

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The couple, who have eight children aged between 12 and 34, would have celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary later this month.

Passengers said that the crew remained calm and the co-pilot executed a smooth emergency landing. They were told that the captain was not feeling well and the plane would be diverted. Then when the flight resumed after a three-hour delay, the new crew informed passengers about what had happened.

In a statement, American Airlines said: "Unfortunately, our pilot passed away. We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot's family and colleagues."

The airline's chairman Doug Parker said the company "couldn't be more proud of the teamwork this crew showed during an extremely difficult time".

Boston Globe said such incidents are "exceedingly rare". According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Johnston's death was the eighth during a commercial flight since 1994.

Mary Schiavo, an aviation lawyer and former inspector general at the US Department of Transportation, put the low figure down to the six-monthly check-ups required for commercial pilots over the age of 40. "Medicine's pretty good at identifying these problems," she told the Globe. Those under 40 have a medical examination once a year.

Aviation experts said yesterday's incident highlights the need for medical exams and for having two pilots on commercial flights.

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