An American Airlines pilot died suddenly during a cross-country flight Monday, a revelation that passengers only learned about after an emergency landing in Syracuse, New York.
Four hours into flight 550 from Phoenix to Boston, the plane’s co-pilot announced that Captain Michael Johnston “wasn’t feeling well.”
“They said that the pilot was really sick,” said passenger Julia House. “And then we saw ambulances pulling up.”
Johnston, 57, had suffered from a heart attack during the overnight flight. His widow, B.J. Johnston, said her husband died doing what he loved — flying planes — which is what he had been doing for more than 25 years.
“We cried on and off today,” said Shallyn Hogan, Johnston’s daughter. “It kind of feels like he’s still on a trip and we can expect him home on Wednesday.”
It is rare for a commercial pilot to die midflight — something that has only happened six other times in the last two decades. Pilots are required to retire by age 65, and get yearly physicals. Johnston’s wife said her husband was required to have exams more frequently after a bypass surgery in 2006.
She described him as an "amazing father to his children, and the best husband I could ever ask for."
Johnson is survived by his wife, eight children and five grandchildren.