, NEW YORK, Jun 19 – A Continental passenger plane en route from Brussels to New York landed safely at Newark airport on Thursday after the pilot died during the flight in a rare mid-air drama, officials said.
The Boeing 777 flight, carrying 247 passengers, was guided down by two co-pilots around 1600 GMT at the New Jersey airport, its final destination which is one of three main airports serving New York City.
"The captain of Continental Flight 61, which was en route from Brussels to New York, died on flight apparently of natural causes," the airline said in a statement. "The flight continued safely with two pilots at the controls."
Other planes were taken out of the landing queue so the Continental aircraft would have a clear descent into Newark, Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) spokesman Jim Peters told NY1 television.
One of the passengers said they knew nothing about the emergency until after they had landed, arriving in Newark at the time the flight had been due.
"We were not aware of that. They called a doctor saying that there was a medical emergency," one passenger Chris Balchuas told NY1 shortly after the landing.
A cardiologist who was on board, Julien Struyven, told CNN that he went to help when he heard the announcement and found the pilot was "clinically dead."
Asked if passengers had been alerted to the emergency, Peters said: "The attention of the flight crew was on maintaining control of the aircraft."
The pilot was 61 years old, based in Newark and had worked for the airline for 21 years, Continental said in a statement.
Another pilot, who was on board but not on duty, had helped the flight’s co-pilot land the plane at the city’s second largest airport after John F. Kennedy. New York is also served by La Guardia airport.
Continental Airlines, the world’s fifth largest airline, flies daily from Brussels to New York-Newark and offers connections to more than 230 destinations across the United States, Canada, Latin and South America, and the Caribbean.
Although it is rare, airlines have lost pilots in flight before. In January 2007, a Continental flight from Texas to a Mexican vacation spot made an emergency landing after the pilot fell ill. The co-pilot safely landed the plane carrying 210 passengers and the pilot died on the ground.
In May 2000, Taiwanese airline China Airlines was forced to turn back shortly after takeoff when the pilot suffered a heart attack. The co-pilot returned the plane to the airport and the pilot died soon after arriving at a hospital.
In March 1997, a Gulf Air Airbus A-320 skidded at Abu Dhabi airport after a pilot had a heart attack right at take-off.