It’s a nightmare scenario out of a movie: Over 150 passengers are sitting on an airliner cruising at 30,000 feet. Without warning, the pilot slumps over from a heart attack.
That unlikely scenario is what happened aboard a 737 jetliner headed across the country… but then the veteran pilot of Air Force B-1 bombers stepped into action.
Captain Mark Gongol was just another passenger on the routine flight headed out of Des Moines International Airport. However, events quickly became anything but routine.
“As a professional courtesy, we all know the aircrew at civilian airlines are extremely well qualified, but as a byproduct of being a pilot, I always have a heightened awareness when flying,” Gongol explained to the U.S. Air Force news service. “However, I never thought I would be in the situation I was in.”
The military pilot’s first clue that something was wrong came when he felt the jet’s engines power back to idle. Then, the aircraft began to descend.
“Over the public address system; a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane,” said Gongol. “A few more calls went out for medical professionals and the flight attendants were all hurrying to first class with their beverage carts and a first-aid kit.”
For a few moments, the Air Force captain thought that there was a medical issue with a passenger in the forward part of the cabin. He was right about the emergency, but wrong about the victim.
A flight attendant used the public address system to ask a chilling question: Were there any experienced pilots aboard the aircraft?
Mark Gongol acknowledged the call and moved toward the cockpit. His fears were confirmed. The captain of the airliner was disoriented and out of commission, while flight attendants and civilian nurses from the passenger cabin worked to revive him.
The 737 flight was also manned by a co-pilot, but the simple fact is that flying and landing a heavy jet is no easy task, and can be a dangerous mission with the primary pilot incapacitated.
“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, and she told me to close the door and have a seat,” he recalled.
The two pilots quickly split the workload involved in managing the complex aircraft. The Air Force veteran dealt with radio communications and double-checked the co-pilot’s checklist procedures to make sure no mistakes were made.
“She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, we both were, 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.”
As the aircraft made an emergency descent toward an unfamiliar airport, Gongol and the co-pilot ran through dozens of issues and adjustments to ensure that the landing was safe.
The quick and precise actions of the aircraft’s crew allowed the ill pilot to survive an apparent heart attack.
“I saw nothing but the finest professionalism under pressure out of the flight attendants, the nurses and the first officer,” Gongol said.
“Everyone aboard the aircraft remained calm, there is no doubt in my mind this contributed above all else to our successful outcome. In my opinion any military pilot would have done the exact same thing I did,” he elaborated.
It may be a stretch to say that Capt. Gongol was the reason for the successful outcome, but there’s no doubt that his calm presence and vast experience made a difference.
“I am sincerely glad to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been party to a successful outcome. I think the captain (of the airliner) summed it up best when we he said ‘it was a bad event where a lot of things went right,’” he stated.
Although the incident took place several years ago now, it’s an important reminder that emergency situations can arise when we least expect them… and America’s men and women in uniform are always ready to step up and help.
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