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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Southwest pilot ‘fainted.’ Then an off-duty pilot stepped in to help.

The FAA is investigating the mid-flight incident on the Ohio-bound flight

A Southwest plane prepares to land at Midway International Airport in Chicago in February. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)
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An off-duty pilot who was a passenger on a Southwest flight from Las Vegas unexpectedly stepped into the flight deck Wednesday after one of the pilots flying the plane “needed medical attention,” the airline said.

The credentialed pilot, who works for another airline, helped with radio communication while the other Southwest pilot in the cockpit flew the Boeing 737 back to Harry Reid International Airport.

“We greatly appreciate their support and assistance,” Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said in a statement.

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In air traffic control recordings archived by, an unidentified person can be heard describing the ordeal.

“The captain became incapacitated while en route,” he said. "He’s in the back of the aircraft right now with the flight attendants, but we need to get him on an ambulance immediately."

Speaking to emergency workers, the man said the captain had felt stomach pain and then “fainted or became incapacitated” about five minutes later. He “came back to” a minute or so later, the man said.

“We had him on oxygen; he’s been in the back with a nurse since then,” the man reported.

Southwest declined to comment on the air traffic control recording. The airline would not say whether the pilot who became ill was the captain or first officer, and did not release any updates on their condition early Thursday for privacy reasons.

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Perry said a nurse on board attended to the pilot until the flight landed.

“It is standard protocol for our Flight Crews to request assistance from traveling medical personnel, if there happens to be any on board, during medical events involving Customers or staff,” he said in an email.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it will investigate the incident.

Flight 6013 departed Las Vegas around 6:30 a.m. Pacific time, bound for Columbus, Ohio; flight-tracking site FlightAware shows it turned around landed back at the airport at 7:50 a.m.

The flight landed safely. An alternate crew flew to John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

“We commend the Crew for their professionalism and appreciate our Customers’ patience and understanding regarding the situation,” Perry said in an email.