A pilot died during a transatlantic flight into Newark Airport, leaving the co-pilot and another officer to bring the plane in safely.
Flight 61 from Brussels, Belgium, landed on schedule at noon Thursday. The co-pilot flew the Boeing 777 and another Continental pilot who was aboard the plane was at the controls as well, according to Continental officials.Continental released a statement saying the pilot appears to have died of natural causes.
"The company has been in touch with his family and we extend our deepest sympathies," the airline's statement said.
Continental did not name the pilot, but said he was 60 years old and had worked for the airline for 32 years.
Sources told NBC that the pilot complained of chest pains and called for help before losing consciouness. Three or four medical doctors who happened to be aboard the plane were rounded up by the crew and rushed to the front to help. The other passengers were not told what was happening and most apparently never knew there was an emergency.
Industry experts praised the airline for handling the situation discreetly and avoiding causing unnecessary panic among passengers.
Dr. Julien Struyven, 72, of Brussels, said he suspects the pilot had a heart attack.
"He was not alive," Struyven said. There was "no chance at all" of saving him, said Struyven, who used a defibrillator to try to revive the pilot, but it was too late.
The Boeing 777 carried 247 passengers and touched down at Newark just before noon. Newark was experiencing two-and-a-half-hour delays due to heavy rains, but the inbound plane was given priority clearance.
Simon Shapiro, a passenger from Brooklyn, was unaware of the drama.
"I didn't hear anything or see anything," Shapiro said. "I was wondering why there were so many cops."
As a precaution, the airport's emergency crews were sent to meet the plane.
Passenger Kathleen Ledger, 45, of Bethlehem, Pa., said she learned about what happened when her cell phone rang after the plane landed.
"My husband called me and told me," she said.
She said she was impressed with the way the flight crew handled themselves — including serving snacks during the crisis — and doesn't think passengers should have been informed of the death during the flight.
"They did an incredible job," she said. "I would have done the exact same thing."
Tom Donaldson, a former leader of the Continental pilots' union who currently flies Boeing 767 jets for the airline, told The Associated Press pilots must pass an extensive physical every six months to remain qualified to fly. The exam includes an electrocardiogram, blood pressure check and an eye test.
It is not clear if the pilot's age was a factor, but until recently, pilots over the age of 60 were forced to retire. The Dec. 14, 2007 Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act raised the age to 65, although for international flights one pilot must be under age 60.
Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot credited with saving 155 people aboard a flight out of JFK Airport in January after the planes engines were disabled by geese, is 58. Sullenberger coolly landed the plane in the Hudson River where all of the passengers and crew were rescued.