Pilot’s deadly in-flight heart attack threatens to renew age debate

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(CNN) — The 161 passengers aboard United Flight 1603 must have known something was wrong when a crew member announced on the cabin loudspeaker if anyone aboard was a physician.

The pilot, Capt. Henry Skillern, 63, was suffering a heart attack.

The in-flight emergency Thursday night that began somewhere in the skies between Houston and Seattle prompted the Seattle-bound 737 to divert to Boise, Idaho. Air traffic controllers radioed the plane’s first officer who updated them with the captain’s condition.

“We got a man down, chest compressions going on right now,” the first officer said. “I’m not sure too much right now on status.”

Once the aircraft was on the ground, first responders boarded and rushed Skillern to Boise’s Saint Alphonsus hospital, where he later died.

The tragedy threatens to reignite the debate over FAA age restrictions for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the mandatory pilot retirement age was raised from 60 to 65. At that time the FAA said five pilots — their ages ranging from 48 to 57 — had died in-flight since 1994, when the FAA began following that statistic.

Related story: Health vs. experience central to pilot-age debate

When the FAA was considering raising the retirement age, then-administrator Marion Blakey underscored the value of pilot experience, calling it “an added margin of safety.”

“Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety,” she said.

Friday, former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo said she doesn’t believe the Flight 1603 tragedy alone will fuel a new debate over the issue. But she says it does point out the importance of careful pilot health screening.

“People die everyday from unanticipated heart attacks, but in many cases you can find problems when you do a rigorous physical,” says Schiavo, who’s now at the law firm Motley Rice, where she specializes in aviation.

The FAA has already shown signs that it’s looking more closely at other pilot related health issues, including the effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. “I think the FAA will probably revisit whether they’re monitoring pilot health stringently enough,” Schiavo says.

Current FAA regulations call for a medical examination every year for commercial airline pilots under age 40 and every six months for those over age 40. To pass the exam, they must not have an established medical history or diagnosis of coronary heart disease that has required treatment.

All airline pilots are required to get EKG heart checks at the age of 35. For those age 40 and older, annual EKGs are required.

And airline pilots are required to report any heart disease to the FAA, regardless of when they learn about it.

It wasn’t immediately known whether Capt. Skillern was piloting the plane at the time he became incapacitated. Typically, there are two pilots in the cockpit so that during an emergency, either pilot can quickly take control of the aircraft.

Flight 1603’s passengers waited at the Boise airport until United flew in another pilot from San Francisco, before they were able to continue their journey to Seattle.

CNN’s John Branch and Mike M. Ahlers contributed to this report.

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  • Rae

    How old was Capt. Sully when his quick thinking, courage, and YEARS OF EXPERIENCE averted a flight tragedy? Don’t write off us 60-plus professionals. We need the best of all generations. No problem with pairing a younger pilot with an older one.

  • patricia simons

    Seems like the current rules are sufficient. Everybody is different. Some things can't be predicted. Even young people have heart attacks. In a crisis, experience is more important. I'll take the older guys any day…besides don't you have copilots when the unforseen happens.

  • pls022pat

    We don't need to over-react… like we do with everything else…. this was very uncharacteristic… pilots are some of the fittest and healthiest professionals and must get regular checkups to be certified to fly commercially. On top of that, commercial aircraft are crewed by two certified pilots just for this reason. Along with getting immediate emergency care for the pilot, the stop in Portland was ordered to get a backup pilot onboard to complete the journey on to Seattle. When a pilot becomes too sick or ill to be in the cockpit… preset emergency plans are put into effect for the safety of the passengers and crew. This was not an ad lib situation…. they practice for these situations… Safety is a number one priority for aircraft builders, owners, and operators so anything you can think of that might go wrong, they have already thought of and planned for. Stuff is still going to happen and making sure pilots aren't over 55 yrs of age isn't going to help it one bit.