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Page last updated at 21:48 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 22:48 UK

Pilot dies flying plane to the US

Continental Airlines Flight 61 is seen at Newark Liberty International Airport on Thursday
Most of the passengers had no idea of the danger

Nearly 250 airline passengers landed safely at their destination after the captain of the plane died mid-flight.

The Continental Airlines Boeing 777 from Brussels to New York landed as scheduled at Newark airport shortly before 1200 (1600 GMT).

Two co-pilots took control and landed the plane, authorities said.

The 247 passengers knew someone on board had been taken ill but were not told that the pilot had died. Many praised the calm conduct of the crew.

The captain apparently died of natural causes, the airline said.

He was a 60-year-old man with more than 20 years of service.

'Distressing'

There were two co-pilots on board - the regular co-pilot and an additional relief co-pilot - when the pilot passed away.

Passengers react to pilot's death

Jim Ferguson - an aviation writer from the UK - told BBC News the plane would have been difficult to land with only one pilot at the controls, as might have been the case on flights manned by only two pilots.

"You could, I gather, land a 777 single-handed - but it would require a lot of effort and it would appear [in this case there was] a very young co-pilot - so if there was another one, that would help.

"It would be very difficult, very distressing. I don't know if this [scenario] is carried out on simulator training or not.

"It's very, very rare - and it would appear that the surviving crew member carried it out very well indeed."

Passengers' surprise

Passengers say they were not told about the events in the cockpit during the flight, though there was an announcement asking if doctors were on board.

Police cars sit on the tarmac near Continental Airlines Flight 61 at Newark Liberty International Airport on Thursday
Passengers were surprised to be greeted by the emergency services

Many praised the conduct of the crew when they learned of the unusual circumstances of the landing.

"I think this crew deserves a lot of credit for remaining as calm and as professional as they did," an unnamed passenger told Reuters news agency.

"There was no sign of any concern, no sign of any trouble - we had a picture-perfect landing in horrible weather here in New Jersey and I think we ought to be hailing these people as heroes - I mean they did an outstanding job."

Others said they were surprised to see so many emergency services lined up on the runway on landing.

When the crew asked if there were doctors on the flight, Dr Julien Struyven, 72, a cardiologist and radiologist from Brussels, went to the cockpit and examined the pilot.

"He was not alive," Dr Struyven told AP. There was "no chance at all" of saving him, he said.

Dr Struyven said he suspected the pilot had suffered a cardiac arrest. He said he used a defibrillator to try and revive the pilot, but it was too late.

Pilots are subject to rigorous medical checks which increase in frequency with age.



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