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Pilot suffers heart attack during flight, dies after emergency landing

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 12:51 p.m. HST, Sep 27, 2013

BOISE, Idaho >> A United Airlines pilot died after suffering a major heart attack while flying from Houston to Seattle, forcing crew members to make an emergency landing in Idaho while two doctors on board did CPR in the first-class cabin.

Pilot Henry Skillern, 63, of Humble, Texas, was still alive when firefighters and paramedics ran to his aid Thursday night on the Boise Airport tarmack. He died a short time later while being treated at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, spokeswoman Jennifer Krajnik said.

Skillern had been a pilot for United Airlines for 26 years.

Boise airport spokeswoman Patti Miller said it's not uncommon for a medical emergency to force a plane to divert to the nearest airport. The Boise airport has had three such diversions in the past two days, she said. But it's rare for a serious malady to strike pilots who undergo regular medical screening to keep their Federal Aviation Administration certification current.

Passengers aboard the Boeing 737-900 flown by Skillern seemed to handle the emergency well, Miller said.

"It seemed like they felt that everything that could be done, was being done," she said. "The passengers were concerned for him, but everyone was very calm."

Passenger Bryant Magill described a professional scene onboard.

"I'm really impressed with all the flight attendants," Magill told Seattle TV station KOMO. "They kept themselves calm. They kept it professional. There was no panic on the plane."

United spokeswoman Christen David declined to release details about how the crew members realized the pilot was in distress and what their next steps were. The first officer radioed air traffic controllers at 7:55 p.m. to report the aircraft needed to make an emergency landing; the plane was on the ground in Boise by 8:10 p.m., Miller said.

The two doctors and an off-duty United Airlines pilot were among the 161 people aboard the flight. The off-duty pilot aided the first officer -- who is also a trained pilot -- in landing the plane while the physicians performed CPR.

The doctors who helped the pilot were from Madigan Army Medical Center, said Jay Ebbeson, public affairs officer for the hospital at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Glenn Harmon, an aerospace physiologist who was an airline pilot for nine years before becoming a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said all commercial airline pilots undergo a medical screening every six months to keep their certification with the FAA.

That screening typically includes a test to measure heart function called an EKG, Harmon said, but the test doesn't necessarily pick up every condition.

Sometimes, the in-flight environment can have a small impact on pre-existing medical conditions, Harmon said. The air on a flight is dry, usually at between 10 or 20 percent humidity, and that can contribute to dehydration.

"One thing that happens to us as pilots is we might be dehydrated and not know it," Harmon said. "We don't like to guzzle lots of water because it's so complicated now to get up and leave the cockpit to go to the bathroom."

Sitting in a cramped seating position for long periods can lead to deep vein thrombosis, or clots deep inside the body. Passengers can get up from their seats and move around to help prevent DVT, but pilots don't get the same opportunity, Harmon said.

The cabin pressure also has a slight effect on blood oxygen levels.

Flight crews train for medical emergencies, and most airlines subscribe to a service that puts them in immediate radio contact with a doctor on the ground in case of emergencies. Additionally, all commercial flights have a first officer onboard who is trained to fly the plane in addition to the pilot. There's often a third, off-duty pilot flying to or from work who can help in an emergency.

Even the biggest commercial aircrafts can generally be flown and landed by just one pilot, Harmon said.


Associated Press writer Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.

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Porkchop wrote:
Ah, why is he allowed to be 300 lbs and still flying. Is he paying-off his FAA medical examiner????
on September 27,2013 | 06:47AM
Holomua wrote:
Because the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance would sue on the grounds of weight discrimination. You can be 300 lbs and perfectly healthy.
on September 27,2013 | 08:37AM
NanakuliBoss wrote:
Did not see his weight announced. Some bloggers suk.
on September 27,2013 | 04:49PM
HonoluluHawaii wrote:
The name PorkChop says it all. I went back to scan the article to see if any 300 pound reference was given, and the answer is no. Also I believe there is no NAAFA, unless if it was meant to be the National Association of American Flight Airlines?
on September 27,2013 | 07:00PM
Grimbold wrote:
Piloting is a heart attack profession: You sit there like a couch potato and get stressed.
on September 27,2013 | 09:08AM
cojef wrote:
Agree with you, but the allure of the job, plus the pay and perks are generous, all equate to many applicants.
on September 27,2013 | 09:45AM
HonoluluHawaii wrote:
With many applicants I am sure only the cream of the crop gets selected.
on September 27,2013 | 07:01PM
4watitsworth wrote:
An off-duty pilot was forced to take over control of the plane? Isn't there a co-pilot to take over controls? If not and there was no off-duty pilot of the flight, what happens when the lone pilot becomes disabled? I'm glad I don't fly on United. Fares are too expensive anyway. Yes, not all obese people have health problems. I know a person who's 300 lbs. and goes to the doctor regularly. He says he doesn't have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other health issues, which really surprises me.
on September 27,2013 | 10:41AM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
4watitsworth, the way I read this article, I could be wrong, but it appeared to say that the first officer, who is also a trained pilot, was flying the plane with the off duty pilot doing the first officer's duties. However, you bring up a good point. recently I read that airlines wanted to do away with the first officer, who in the old days used to be called the co-pilot, and have only one pilot on the plane. Especially as highlighted by this situation where the pilot was incapacitated, having a commercial plane being flown by only one pilot is a foolhardy thing to do.
on September 27,2013 | 04:49PM
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