Nightly News   |  September 27, 2013

Pilot’s in-flight death highlights aerial emergencies

In-flight emergencies are more common than you realize. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> now to some of the very, very tense and dramatic moments in the sky over idaho last night when the captain of a 737 with 161 passengers on board suffered a fatal heart attack midflight. as flight attendants and passengers tried to save the captain, the co-pilot took over the flying, declared an emergency in flight and landed at the nearest airport available in boise. nbc's tom costello has our report.

>> reporter: it was just after 7:30 last night when the first officer radioed boise airport .

>> air united, emergency.

>> reporter: united was flying from houston to seattle when the 63-year-old captain apparently suffered a heart attack at the controls.

>> we got man down, chest compressions going on right now. i'm not sure too much right now status, but an ambulance and maybe some air stairs meet us off the runway.

>> we'll get that going.

>> reporter: they jumped into the cockpit.

>> they kept the cpr going the whole time we were in the air.

>> reporter: despite the efforts the captain died at a boise hospital. inflight medical emergencies are actually very common. nearly 50 each day in the u.s., but most involve passengers and aren't so serious. according to a recent study, 37% are related to fainting, followed by respiratory and air sickness . just over 7% of all emergencies cause the plane to divert. 27 times a day flight crews call the university of pittsburgh , one of two med centers that assess a patient's condition from the ground.

>> patients in whom we have a high suspicion that they're having either a heart attack or a stroke would be diverted to the closest airport and then subsequently to the closest hospital.

>> reporter: pilots undergo physical checkups once a year under 40, twice over 40. they check their eyesight, equilibrium, mental state and cardiac health.

>> one of the reasons there are two pilots in the airplane is in case one is incapacitated.

>> reporter: back on flight 1603 .

>> a good thing we had a good co-pilot.

>> reporter: the passengers landed safely in seattle just after midnight. tom costello, nbc news, washington.