An Airline Captain Dies in Flight

Early Monday morning the captain of an American Airlines flight from Phoenix to Boston died while at the controls. Mary Grady of AVWeb has a story about the episode and the plane’s emergency diversion to Syracuse, under the control of the first officer, the pilot sitting in the right-hand seat.

Her story also includes audio of transmissions between the first officer and the controllers in Syracuse. I don’t see a way to embed it, but the link is here: If you listen to it, as I hope you will do after finishing the next three paragraphs, it will illustrate one point and suggest another.

What it illustrates is something my wife Deb and I have both mentioned over the years: the calm competence of members of the air-traffic system in times of emergency. The controller goes out of his way to accommodate the pilot; the pilot stays unflapped in a situation of obvious distress (his dead colleague is sitting a few inches away from him); all members of the system  work with the others as calmly as anyone could expect. With all there is to gripe about in the misery of modern air travel, it is worth remembering people performing as ably as we overhear in this recording.

What it suggests is a point that airline pilot Patrick Smith, of Ask the Pilot, raises repeatedly: it’s a disservice to refer to the first officer as “co-pilot,” because that suggests that he or she is a less-competent emergency backup for the “real” pilot. In modern airlines both captain and first officer are fully qualified pilots; they may take turns landing the airplane or handling it in different phases of flight; the difference between them may have as much to with airline-company seniority as with overall experience. So the first officer landed the plane on his own, as he was trained and fully qualified to do.

This is a sad episode for the captain and his family, and an inconvenience for passengers who ended up in the Finger Lakes region rather than in Boston. But overall it was a case of a system showing its resiliency under stress.