TODAY   |  September 28, 2013

How flight crews are trained to handle a medical emergency

Medical emergencies at 30,000 feet are not that uncommon, and flight crews are trained in first aid. To help deter the crew from a medical emergency themselves, pilots must complete regular check-ups. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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

>> reporter: israeli it is to maintain peace in the middle east .

>>> we are wondering what happened to a captain of a 737 suffered a heart attack mid flight late thursday. flight crew tried to save him. tom costello is live in washington to tell us more about that. tom, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning again. 30,000 feet is the last place most people want to be when they go into labor or suffer a stroke or a heart attack . but as we saw, it does happen, even involving crew members and that is when the training is supposed to kick in.

>> we are going to go straight up and straight down with those compressions.

>> reporter: flight attendance across the country.

>> 1, 2, 34.

>> reporter: learning the basics of cpr is basic training . late thursday night over idaho, a united flight crew used all their training trying to save one of their own.

>> emergency aircraft with you.

>> reporter: the 63-year-old captain at the controls from houston to seattle was in cardiac arrest . the co-pilot assumed command.

>> man down. chest compressions going on right now. i'm not sure of too much right now, status, but can an imagine and maybe paramedics meet us off the runway.

>> reporter: off duty pilots jumped into the cockpit two army doctors returning from a training session performed cpr. despite all of their efforts, the captain died at a boise hospital. the retirement age for pilots is now 65. they undergo physicals once a year if under 40 and twice a year if over 40. doctors check their eyesight and equilibrium and cardiac health.

>> pilots are less likely to have these type of events than the population in general because of the ongoing medical evaluations that we go through.

>> reporter: in flight medical emergencies are fairly common. nearly 50 each day in the united states , 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 , over 7% of all the emergencies require the plane to divert.

>> if he continues to have symptoms, i would have ems meet him.

>> reporter: when there is an emergency they call two med centers for advice.

>> serious medical eventual are rare and an event such as a heart attack or a death on board of the flight are incredibly uncommon.

>> reporter: i was on a plane a few years ago when a passenger suffered a stroke. the pilot declared an emergency. we were over western nebraska and i swear we picked up speed fast and got into denver very quickly. the flight attendant asked everyone to stay seated until the paramedics boarded. wouldn't you know, as soon as we landed, people jumped up out of their seats. the flight attendants said, "if you don't sit down, i'll have you arrested." they sat down pretty quickly.