MIAMI — It was expected to be a routine flight. A red-eye transcon, commanded by veteran American Airlines Captain Mike Johnston and assisted by First Officer Steve Stackelhouse. Both fully qualified and type-rated Airbus pilots, they were to fly 147 passengers and two infants in their A320 from KPHX (Phoenix, Arizona) to KBOS (Boston, Massachusetts.)
As flight crews typically do, the two pilots planned to trade off flying each leg during their 3-day trip together. The first leg would be flown by Captain Johnston. “We were cruising at Flight Level 350 (35,000 feet,) about 3:45 minutes into our red-eye,” said First Officer Stackelhouse. “We were still 250 miles from BOS and the sun was just starting to rise in the East.”
Stackelhouse observed Johnston take a few breaths from his oxygen mask, but didn’t think anything. A few hits of O2 is a common way for pilots to refresh themselves, especially during red-eye flights.
“He gave me zero indications that he was in any kind of distress,” Stackelhouse said.
“Mike put his mask down and laid his head back. Within a minute, I heard the ‘snore’—what would later be described as his final breath.”
Thinking Johnston had fallen asleep or unconscious, Stackelhouse shook the Captain, but got no response. He immediately called Lead Flight Attendant Jennifer Sullivan, a registered nurse, who began assessing the patient. She could not find a pulse.
“She stated that we needed to land the plane NOW,” Stackelhouse said. “I declared a medical emergency with ATC and began searching for the nearest suitable airport.”
Normally, during an emergency, both pilots would divide duties, with one flying and handling the radios, while the other dealt with the emergency. But this time, Stackelhouse was solo.
“I went into a sort of calm, mission-oriented mode,” Stackelhouse said, “to very methodically go through the process of getting on the ground quickly.”
The A320 is a highly automated airliner, which greatly relieved Stackelhouse’s workload. Even so, as a single pilot, during the following minutes, he was extremely busy—simultaneously flying the airplane, handling the radios and searching for an alternate.
Stackelhouse also typed the situation into the plane’s ACARS, or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, to alert his Company dispatcher. On any given flight, the Captain and Dispatcher will jointly decide if and what airport is suitable for a diversion. The system is often somewhat cumbersome and slow to respond, however, and Stackelhouse received no immediate reply.
He had to decide on his own.
Stackelhouse said, “I identified KSYR as the closest suitable airport, even though we were about 50 miles past it, to the East. I had landed at KSYR before, so I felt somewhat familiar. I asked for direct KSYR (Syracuse, New York.)”
ATC complied, and gave him a descent to 11,000 feet. As an emergency aircraft, flight 550 would receive priority handling.
While Stackelhouse made the high dive for Syracuse, flight attendant Sullivan worked on the patient. However, with the man firmly strapped to his seat, she was able to offer little help.
“Mike was not in a position for Jennifer to begin CPR, and chest compressions were out of the question as he was sitting in his padded seat,” Stackelhouse said.
Furthermore, pulling the Captain from his seat might risk entangling him in the airplane’s controls, so it was decided that he should remain strapped into his seat.
“We were on the ground within what seemed like a few minutes,” Stackelhouse said. “It all seems so surreal now.”
Steve quickly taxied to the gate. Once parked, paramedics rushed onboard.
“The paramedics did attach what appeared to be EKG leads to Mike upon landing.” Stackelhouse said, “but there were no signals at all.” Captain Michael Johnston was pronounced dead.
A relief crew was flown in to take the passengers on to Boston, while Stackelhouse and the original crew was released from duty. Indeed, Stackelhouse had known Captain Johnston for some time and, afterward, was understandably shaken.
“Mike and I we were based together in KLAS (Las Vegas) years ago,” Stackelhouse reminisced. “We had flown several trips together. Mike was always very friendly, and we had many a conversation.”
Stackelhouse is back flying the line. But, somehow, the experience has served to strengthen his already strong ties to his family.
Together with Kris, his wife of 22 years, he continues to raise three children. His future plans include living in a lake home with his wife, and enjoying their time together traveling.
Life—and the flights—must go on.
First Officer Stackelhouse would like to thank ATC for their assistance during the crisis. “They were precise, timely and helpful in their communications and assistance to me,” Stackelhouse said.
He would also like to thank dispatcher Jen, Captains Peter Blandino, Captain James Condes, as well as pilot volunteers FO Ken Hagen, Captain Ken Hewitt, Captain John Scherf, FO Jeff Gonzales and Captain Bill Duxbury. In particular, he said, he appreciated the debrief by corporate Employee Assistance Program Manager Ellyn Kravette.
Stackelhouse said he often thinks of Mike and his family.
“I pray that they will find peace knowing Mike died while doing what he loved,” he said.
On behalf of myself and the staff of AirwaysNews.com, I would like to express my deep condolences to the loved ones of Captain Michael Johnston.