Civil Aviation

USAF B-1 pilot recalls when he assisted in the landing a Boeing 737 copilot after the captain fell ill

Two pilots on the flight deck

Commercial aviation is the world’s safest mode of transportation, and history shows that having at least two fully qualified, highly trained, and well-rested pilots on the flight deck is an airliner’s strongest safety asset. Airliners are designed for more than one pilot on the flight deck because safety and operations require it.

Yet some special-interest groups continue to push for reducing the flight crew on board large aircraft—possibly down to even a single pilot—to cut operational costs.

Evidence, including more than a decade of study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, shows that the safety risks and challenges associated with single-pilot operations far outweigh any potential benefits.

According to ALPA, pilots on board an aircraft can see, feel, smell, and hear many indications of an impending problem and begin to formulate a course of action before even the most sophisticated sensors and indicators provide positive indications of trouble.

A minimum two-person flight crew is necessary to manage the flight deck workload and protect against the potential incapacitation of one pilot as highlighted in the article AF pilot helps in airline emergency by Staff Sgt. Jacob Morgan 21st Space Wing Public Affairs.

Capt. Mark Gongol helped land a commercial 737 Dec. 30, 2013, when the pilot had a medical emergency. Gongol is a B-1B Lancer pilot and the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director of operations at Fort Carson, Colo. (Courtesy photo)

USAF B-1 pilot assisting in the landing a Boeing 737 copilot after the captain fell ill

Most people think that during an emergency they would step up to the plate, act heroically and do what is necessary to save lives. Thinking one might rescue the day is a noble thought, but acting on those thoughts is what sets the nation’s heroes above noble thinkers.

“Every pilot thinks ‘what would I do if this all goes wrong’ on an aircraft they are not controlling,” said Capt. Mark Gongol, a B-1B Lancer pilot and the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director of operations at Fort Carson, Colorado. “As a professional courtesy, we all know the aircrew at civilian airlines are extremely qualified, but as a byproduct of being a pilot, I always have a heightened awareness when flying — however, I never thought I would be in the situation I was in.”

After spending the holidays with his family, Gongol, his wife and daughter were on their way from Des Moines International Airport, Iowa, Dec. 30, 2013, with 151 other passengers and six crewmembers. To him and his family, the day was just like any other.

Approximately 30 minutes into the flight, Gongol said he noticed the engines power down to idle. Thoughts immediately started jumping through his head. There were a variety of reasons why the engines would shut down to idle, none of them categorized as normal. Slowly, the aircraft began to descend and turn right.

“Over the public address system; a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane,” Gongol said. “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 kits.”

Are there any non-revenue pilots on board?

At that moment, Gongol thought it was a medical emergency with a first class passenger, his instincts told him to stay seated and stay out of the way.

A fourth call went out, “are there any non-revenue pilots on board, please ring your call button.”

Immediately, Gongol realized the pilot was the patient. He looked to his wife; as she gave him a nod, Gongol pressed his button and headed toward the flight deck.

Arriving at the flight deck, Gongol said he saw four flight attendants and two passenger nurses assembling a make-shift bed. Medical kits were strewn across the ground and the captain of the aircraft was seated in his chair, eyes dilated, sweaty, clammy and disoriented. Gongol immediately thought the pilot was suffering some serious cardiac trauma.

“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,'” Gongol said. “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, she made the right judgment and told me to close the door and have a seat.”

From there, Gongol said he was calm and collected, and the first officer decided that he would be most useful to talk on the radios, back her up on the aircraft’s checklists and look for anything going wrong.

Having been an aircraft commander, Gongol said he is used to making decisions, but he knew the best way to get the aircraft down safely was to play a support role to the first officer and make things as normal as possible.

Copilot never taxied a Boeing 737 before

“She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed — who wouldn’t be,” Gongol said. “At the beginning, I interrupted her flow of operations, but we figured everything out extremely quickly. She was very impressive.”

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-1B Lancer 28th FW, 34th BS Thunderbirds, EL/86-129 / 2005

Gongol said there were hundreds of issues the two pilots talked through on the aircraft while descending: cabin pressure, approach, contact with air traffic control, visual cues, and programming of the auto-pilot were just a few. At about 500 feet above ground level, the first officer hand-flew the approach to a normal touchdown.

After landing, the first officer turned to Gongol and asked if he knew where to taxi, she had never been to the Omaha airport before. Taken aback by how cool, calm and collected the first officer had acted without knowing the airport, Gongol remembered landing at the airport before while in pilot training.

“Surprisingly, taxiing was the most stressful part of the day for the first officer,” Gongol said. “She had never taxied a [Boeing] 737 before and the (air traffic control) had no idea that the pilot was the reason for the emergency. We had to make a quick decision that her switching to the pilot’s seat and taxiing the aircraft without the training was necessary to save the captain’s life.”

As the air stairs went down and the aircraft was shut down, Gongol and the first officer talked through the decisions they had just made. Gongol assured the first officer that every decision she made would be backed up by him; he would have taken the exact same actions had he been in her place.

USAF B-1 pilot recalls when he assisted in the landing of a Boeing 737 after the pilot fell ill

Since the emergency the captain of the aircraft recovered well and contacted Gongol directly to thank him.

“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.”

In the following video Gongol recalls when he assisted in the landing of a Boeing 737 after the commercial pilot fell ill.

Photo credit: US Air Force and B737-800 by Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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