Amanda Ripley


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In-Flight Death

20th Jun 2009 posted in General

Thursday’s in-flight death of Continental Airlines pilot, Craig Lenell, may have been a surprise to passengers, but it’s not the first time a pilot has died in-flight. As recently as 2007, another Continental pilot died en route from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  An MSNBC list of other instances where pilots died or passed out in-flight is published here.

Lenell, who served 32 years as a Continental pilot, was 60 and apparently healthy (per FAA rules, commercial pilots over 40 are required to undergo twice-yearly physicals). He died of a heart attack. According to CNN, of the five pilots who have died in-flight since 1994 (when the FAA began tracking this information) all were filed under the category “cardiac.”

Just like more firefighters die from heart-related conditions than fires, more pilots die from heart attacks than plane crashes. In this case, it’s hard to say if age was a factor. Up until two years ago, Lenell would have been forced to retire at 60. But in 2007, Congress voted to raise the mandatory retirement age to 65. Proponents of the change say that age is a positive, rather than a negative: more experienced pilots are typically safer pilots. The average age of pilots in the US has been gradually rising (check out the FAA stats here), and CNN predicts that Thursday’s death will revive the debate over pilots’ mandatory retirement age.