Continental Flight From Brussels Lands Safely in Newark After Pilot Dies

By Keith B. Richburg and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 19, 2009

NEW YORK, June 18 -- For the passengers of Continental Airlines Flight 61 from Brussels, the landing Thursday morning was nothing but routine at Newark's fog-covered, rain-drenched Liberty International Airport, after an exhausting if unremarkable eight-hour haul across the Atlantic.

But for the crew, the flight and the landing were anything but routine.

The plane's 60-year-old pilot collapsed about midway through the flight. A Belgian physician called to the cockpit was unable to revive the captain with a defibrillator and pronounced him dead. Two co-pilots moved the captain's body to an empty seat in a crew rest area, and they took command of the Boeing 777 aircraft for the remainder of the flight.

The plane landed safely at 11:47 a.m., slightly ahead of schedule, pulling up to the terminal in a rainstorm with most of the 247 passengers unaware of the emergency. The co-pilot even made the normal landing announcement, some passengers recalled in television interviews, welcoming the passengers to Newark and wishing them a pleasant stay.

"No fear, no panic -- everyone was calm," said passenger Martha Love in an interview on NY1 television. "It was fine."

"There was no indication to us that there was any problem with the flight," said another passenger, John Cavilia, also interviewed on NY1. "We thought it was a problem with a passenger. There was very little talk about it."

The co-pilots instructed the flight attendants to tell anyone who inquired that there had been an illness.

The captain, who was based in Newark and had been with Continental for 32 years, apparently died of natural causes, the airline said in a statement. A source speaking on the condition of anonymity identified the man as Craig Lenell, the Associated Press reported.

Aviation experts and the airline said the other members of the cockpit crew -- in this case the co-pilot and a relief pilot -- were trained for precisely that type of emergency: incapacity of the captain.

While it is highly unusual for pilots to die in flight, there have been other instances. Two months ago in Florida, a passenger with some pilot training took the controls of a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air B200 heading to Jackson, Miss., with four people on board after the pilot died, and the passenger landed the plane safely with help from ground controllers. And in 2007, another Continental pilot, who was 57, died shortly after taking off on a flight from Houston to Mexico, but a co-pilot and private pilot safely landed that plane with 210 passengers on board.

There have been six such deaths since 1994, according to the FAA. Four of the pilots were in the their mid-50s. The youngest -- a 48-year-old -- died in 1995.

Today's incident raises anew questions about the age and health of pilots. In 2007, Congress changed federal law to allow pilots to continue flying until age 65, instead of 60, after pilots successfully argued that the industry needed more experience in the cockpit and that demographic changes showed that older Americans were living longer and leading healthier lives.

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