June 18 (Bloomberg) -- A Continental Airlines Inc. pilot died of natural causes on a flight to Newark, New Jersey, from Brussels today, forcing two backup pilots to take control of the plane, authorities said.
The plane landed safely at Newark Liberty International Airport at 11:49 a.m. local time after an eight-hour flight from Brussels, the airport said on its Web site. The Boeing Co. 777, Flight 61, was carrying 247 passengers, Continental said in a statement.
Passengers weren’t told of the pilot’s death in flight, the Associated Press reported. An announcement was made asking if any doctors were aboard, and several passengers approached the cockpit.
The 60-year-old captain, whose name wasn’t immediately released, was based in Newark and had 32 years of service with the airline, Continental said. He apparently died of natural causes, forcing a relief pilot on board to take his place, the airline said. The plane continued safely with two pilots at the controls.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the Newark airport, notified the Essex County Medical Examiner’s office of the death, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the authority in New York.
“The company has been in touch with his family and we extend our deepest sympathies,” the airline said in the statement. Continental, the fourth-largest U.S. carrier, earlier said the pilot was 61 and had 21 years of service with the airline.
Pilot deaths during a flight are rare, said Robert Mann, a former executive at American Airlines and now-defunct Pan Am who runs consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.
“I don’t think it’s an age-related issue, just a statistical anomaly that’s bound to happen from time to time,” Mann said in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, it happens with customers, too.”
The first officer on a GB Airways flight from the U.K. to Cyprus died in February 2008, causing a diversion to Istanbul, according to London’s Telegraph newspaper. GB Airways is a unit of easyJet Plc, a low-cost carrier based in the U.K.
2007 Continental Death
A Continental pilot died in January 2007 on a flight from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the Associated Press reported. The flight diverted to an airport in McAllen, Texas.
Airlines are required to have a captain, a first officer and a relief pilot who’s usually a first officer on all flights that are eight hours or longer, Mann said. On flights longer than 12 hours, airlines must have two complete sets of captains and first officers, he said.
All of those pilots must be certified to land the aircraft, he said. Flights often have pilots who are on vacation or are “dead-heading” on their way to work who could also help fly a plane in an emergency, he said.
If a death or medical emergency occurs when a plane is over or near land, the flight will typically be diverted to the nearest airport that can accommodate it, Mann said. If the plane is over water or near its destination, the flight will usually continue.
Crewmembers usually will move the body to a galley or unused seat and cover it with a blanket to shield it from other passengers, Mann said.
“The crew wants to be as sensitive as possible to the situation,” Mann said. “It’s alarming for them, too, because they’ve just lost a friend and colleague.”