The American Airlines pilot who died mid-flight en route from Phoenix to Boston on Monday morning, forcing his first officer to land the plane, has been identified as Captain Michael Johnston.
The airline issued a statement naming the pilot on Monday. He was 57 years old.
According to an autopsy and preliminary toxicology tests, Johnston’s death “was the result of natural diseases”, a spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office in Onondaga County, New York, told CNN. Betty Jean Johnston, Michael’s wife, told KUTV that her husband probably died of a heart attack. She said that her husband had had double bypass surgery in 2006.
Johnston was a graduate of Brigham Young University. He began his career with America West Airlines in January 1990 as a first officer and later was promoted to captain.
“We are incredibly saddened by this event, and we are focused on caring for our pilot’s family and colleagues,” an American Airlines spokeswoman told the Guardian.
American flight 550, which had 147 passengers and five crew members on board, left Phoenix at 11.55pm local time on Sunday and was diverted mid-flight to Syracuse, landing shortly after 7am EDT on Monday, spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said. A replacement crew was sent to Syracuse, and the plane, an Airbus A320, landed in Boston at 12.30pm.
Before the flight landed at Syracuse the first officer called the airport tower and said in a calm voice: “American 550. Medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated.” He requested a runway to land.
In a recording of his exchange with the tower, the officer expressed concern about whether ambulance medics could get on the plane quickly. He was assured they could and was told to go into a gate where the medics would meet the plane.