B-1B pilot helps land 737 after captain has heart attack

EVERETT — You know things are bad when a flight attendant asks over the public-address system if there’s a doctor on the plane.

You know it’s really bad when the flight attendant then asks for a pilot.

That’s what happened on a United Airlines Boeing 737 flying from Des Moines, Iowa, to Denver on Dec. 30. The pilot suffered a devastating heart attack about 30 minutes into the flight.

As the pilot received first aid, off-duty U.S. Air Force Capt. Mark Gongol helped the co-pilot land at Omaha International Airport.

Gongol, a B-1B Lancer pilot based at Fort Carson, Colorado, gave his first interview about the experience recently to Air Force Space Command.

He was on the flight with his wife and children, returning from visiting relatives.

Here are some excerpts:

“After they moved the pilot, I was asked by the first officer, ‘are you a pilot,’ which was quickly followed with ‘what do you fly,’” said Gongol. “I knew she was in a serious situation and that question gave her five seconds to judge if I would be useful. I also had about five seconds to assess her, ‘was she panicking, or was she OK to fly the aircraft?’ We both finished our silent assessments, she made the right judgment and told me to close the door and have a seat. …”

“She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, who wouldn’t be,” said Gongol. “At the beginning, I interrupted her flow of operations, but we figured everything out extremely quickly. She was very impressive. …”

After they landed, the co-pilot asked him if he knew where to taxi, as she had never landed in Omaha. Gongol said he was that much more impressed by how coolly she had flown into a new airport.

Flight crew members and a couple of passengers who were also nurses treated the pilot until paramedics took him off the plane. He survived and is recovering, according to the Air Force Space Command website.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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