SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — An American Airlines flight from Phoenix to Boston was diverted to Syracuse, New York, Monday morning after the captain became ill and later died, according to an airline spokeswoman.
Andrea Huguely said Flight 550 left Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. local time and was diverted mid-flight, landing shortly after 7 a.m. EDT. She said that after the flight's captain was stricken, the first officer safely landed the plane with 147 passengers and five crew members onboard.
"We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot's family and colleagues," the airline statement said.
American Airlines identified the pilot as 57-year-old Captain Michael Johnston.
Huguely said a replacement crew was sent to Syracuse and the plane later completed its trip to Boston.
Before the flight landed at Syracuse, the first officer called the airport tower and said in a calm voice, "American 550. Medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated." He requested a runway to land.
In a recording of his exchange with the tower, the officer expresses concern whether ambulance medics can get on the plane quickly. He's assured that they can, and is told to go into a gate where the medics would meet the plane.
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 said.
She said rumors were circulating of the pilot's death in the Syracuse airport, but they were only confirmed by an announcement on their makeup flight to Boston.
Anderson said the mood on board then was somber, but she commended the crew's handling of a tragic situation.
Late Monday evening American Airlines CEO Doug Parker sent this note to employees:
Dear Fellow Team Members,
Today we received the extremely sad news that Phoenix-based Captain Michael Johnston passed away while at work. Capt. Johnston was piloting Flight #550 from Phoenix to Boston early Monday morning when he fell ill. Capt. Johnston was 57 years old.
A graduate of Brigham Young University, Capt. Johnston began his career with America West Airlines in January 1990 as a first officer on the Dash-8. He later flew the 737 and the 757, before being upgraded to captain on the A320.
I want to take a moment to thank Mike's crewmembers on Flight #550. They took extraordinary care of Mike, each other and our customers. We couldn't be more proud of the teamwork this crew showed during an extremely difficult time. Our airport teams in Syracuse and Boston were also instrumental in assisting our customers, and their handling is also greatly appreciated.
All of us at American extend our condolences to Mike's wife, Betty Jean, and to his entire family. They have lost a husband and father, and many of you have lost a personal friend. Taking care of Mike's family is our focus now, and I know you'll join me in keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.
American Airlines is based in North Texas.
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