Passenger helps land 737 after pilot suffers heart attack

Capt. Mark Gongol, 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director (U.S. Air Force photo) (U.S. Air Force)

"Does anyone know how to fly a plane?"

It's the last thing you want to hear your flight attendant announce over the plane's loudspeaker, but that's exactly what happened on United Flight 1637 on Dec. 30.

Luckily for the 155 passengers and six crew members aboard that flight, the answer was yes.

Capt. Mark Gongol, a member of the U.S. Air Force operating out of Fort Carson, was on board the plane with his wife and daughters, returning from holidays after visiting family in Des Moines, Iowa. Gongol told Air Force Space Command in his first interview since the incident that about half an hour into the flight, Gongol said he became aware of the plane's engines powering down, and the aircraft began to descend and veer to the right.

"Over the public address system, a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane," Gongol told AFSC. "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 kit."

Shortly after, a fourth and even more alarming call went out:

"Are there any non-revenue pilots on board, please ring your call button."

Gongol says he immediately rang his call button, since he is an experienced B-1B Lancer pilot. He walked up to the flight deck and saw that flight attendants and two passenger nurses were tending to the pilot, looking sweaty, clammy and disoriented, suggesting to Gongol, that he'd experienced 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,'" said Gongol. "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 asses 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."

Gongol talked through myriad issues with his new co-pilot, like cabin pressure, communicating with air traffic control, and their approach. He says that at about 500 feet above the groud, the co-pilot hand-flew the plane to touchdown.

Once she landed, there was one more surprise for Gongol: The co-pilot turned to him and ask if he knew where to taxi, as she was unfamiliar with the Omaha airport they had just touched down at.

"Surprisingly, taxiing was the most stressful part of the day for the first officer," said Gongol. "She had never taxied a 737 before and the ATC 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."

Gongol and the co-pilot brought the plane to a stop, and before long, the passengers were all safely off the plane. The captain who experienced the heart attack is now said to be recovering. While Gongol says that he merely assisted in the operation that day and he wasn't the hero that day, it's hard not to think what could have happened had it not been for Gongol and the co-pilot's quick thinking and skill.

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