American Airlines pilot who collapsed and died during flight suffered heart attack, says family

The pilot had been identified as a 57-year-old father-of-eight who 'loved flying'

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The Independent US

The pilot of a plane that had to be diverted after he took ill and died while in control, has been identified as a 57-year-old man who “loved flying and would do anything for anyone”. The wife of Cpt Michael Johnston, who had undergone bypass surgery in 2006, said she had been told he had suffered a heart attack.

“He loves flying,” Betty Johnston told NBC. “He is very loving and caring, and he'll do anything for anybody - bend over backwards, try and help out anyone as much as he can. He’s always been that way.”

Mr Johnston collapsed on an American Airlines overnight flight carrying 147 passengers and five crew, that was making its way from Phoenix to Boston.

The first officer took over and made an emergency landing in Syracuse.

Passengers on the flight said they had experienced a quick descent and some turbulence, before hearing a member of the flight crew announce that the captain was unwell. They learned of the death of the father-of-eight, on a later flight to Boston manned by a new crew.

American Flight 550 had left Phoenix at 11.55pm local time on Sunday and was diverted mid-flight, American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely told the Associated Press.

Seven pilots for US airlines and one charter pilot have died during flights since 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

“American 550. Medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated,” the first officer told the Syracuse airport tower, requesting a runway to land on. 

In a recording of his exchange with the tower, he expressed concern whether ambulance medics could get on the plane quickly. He was assured they could and was told to go into a gate where the medics would meet the plane. 

“We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot's family and colleagues,” the airline said.

Passenger Louise Anderson, who was heading from Reno, Nevada, to Boston via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight. 

“What I woke up to was the flight attendant telling us we were making an emergency landing because the pilot was ill,” she told the AP

She said rumours of the pilot's death had circulated in the Syracuse airport but were confirmed only by an announcement on their replacement flight to Boston. 

Mrs Johnston said the couple would have celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary on October 18.