An American Airlines pilot died after becoming ill on an overnight "red eye" flight from Phoenix to Boston, American Airlines confirmed to Today in the Sky.
The incident occurred about four hours into Flight 550, which then diverted to Syracuse and landed there around 7:10 a.m. Monday morning, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.
In a recording of a conversation with air traffic control, Flight 550's first officer can be heard calling in the emergency while saying the captain had become "incapacitated."
"Syracuse, American 550, medical emergency, captain is incapacitated, request handling for runway," the co-pilot said, according to an audio recording of the conversation posted on the website savvystews.com.
American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein confirmed to Today in the Sky the captain died, though the immediate cause of the pilot's death could not be confirmed.
"We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot's family and colleagues," Feinstein said.
While the death of a pilot during a flight could raise concern among uneasy fliers, the captain and first officer are each capable of flying commercial airliners alone. The Federal Aviation Administration requires two crew members in the cockpit at all times for just such an emergency.
“Pilots train for the incapacitation of another crew member,” said John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a consultant as head of Safety Operating Systems, “This would have been something the first officer was trained to deal with.”
Airline pilots get two physicals per year after 40 years old, as required by the FAA and are typically healthy people, Cox said. FAA also has a mandatory retirement age of 65.
“This is a tragedy and I’m very sorry for his family,” Cox said. “But as far as were the passengers at risk? No.”
Flight 550 was on an Airbus A320 and had 147 passengers and five crewmembers, according to American. The flight spent about four hours on the ground in Syracuse and then continued on to Boston after a replacement crew arrived to the aircraft in Syracuse.
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