A Continental pilot dies in flight

Why passengers never realized what happened until the plane landed safely

What happened

Co-pilots safely landed a Continental airliner carrying 247 passengers at Newark Liberty Airport on Thursday after the pilot died during a flight from Belgium to New Jersey. A spokesman for the airline said the 60-year-old pilot died of natural causes. (Fox News)

What the commentators said

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Passengers aboard the flight said they knew there was an emergency, said Al Baker and Sewell Chan in The New York Times, but that they had no idea the pilot had died until the plane landed. "It’s scary, but in all honesty, it’s kind of good that they didn’t tell us," said passenger Chris Balchuns, 18. The flight continued safely after the Continental pilot died when the co-pilot and a reserve pilot typically present on overseas flights took the controls.

The headline "Continental pilot dies" was frightening as the news unfolded, but "this is not the first time an airline has lost a pilot in flight," said Chuck Squatriglia in Wired. Another Continental pilot fell ill during a 2007 flight from Texas to Mexico—the plane made an emergency landing and the pilot later died. "In May 2000, a China Airlines flight turned back after the pilot suffered a heart attack; he died after being hospitalized. And in March 1997, a Gulf Air flight skidded during takeoff from Abu Dhabi airport when the pilot had a heart attack."

This latest death shines a light on an issue that was "hotly debated" in the aviation industry for years—the mandatory retirement age for pilots, said Al Tompkins in Poynter Online. The Continental pilot who died would not have been allowed to fly the jet under the rules in effect two years ago, when the mandatory retirement age was 60. The new retirement age—which the Airline Pilots Association opposed for safety reasons—is 65.

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