Published in February 2016 issue

The American Airlines First Officer who saved the day

Dedicated To The Memory Of Our Friend, Captain Michael Johnston—

Sayonara, watashi no tomoedachi

By Eric Auxier

A red-eye transcon, commanded by veteran American Airlines (AA) Captain Mike Johnston, who was to be assisted by First Officer (FO) Steve Stackelhouse. Both fully qualified and type-rated Airbus Pilots, they were to fly 147 passengers and two infants in their A320 from PHX (Phoenix, Arizona) to BOS (Boston, Massachusetts).

As flight crews typically do, the two Pilots planned to trade off flying each leg during their three-day trip together. The first leg would be flown by Captain Johnston.

“We were cruising at Flight Level 350 (35,000 feet), about 3hours and 45 minutes into our red-eye,” said FO 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 of it. A few hits of O2 are 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 [Air Traffic Control] and began searching for the nearest suitable airport.”

Normally, during an emergency, Pilots divide duties, with one flying and handling the radios while the other deals with the emergency. This time, Stackelhouse was on his own.

“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 lightened Stackelhouse’s workload. Even so, during the following minutes, as a single Pilot, 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 (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) to alert his Company Dispatcher. On any given flight, the Captain and Dispatcher will jointly decide 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.

“I identified SYR [Syracuse, New York] as the closest suitable airport, even though we were about 50 miles past it, to the east. I had landed at SYR before, so I felt somewhat familiar. I asked for direct SYR.” 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 in his seat, she was able to offer only 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 in his seat. “I had initially set-up for an east ILS [Instrument Landing System] approach to runway 11,” Stackelhouse said, “but ATC offered to switch the ILS to runway 28, to provide for a straight-in approach.”

Once he was sure that the wind was within the aircraft’s limits and that he would be able to descend in time to land straight-in, Stackelhouse accepted the runway 28 approach.

“We were on the ground within what seemed like a few minutes,” Stackelhouse said. “It all seems so surreal now. I know the nurse was tending to him, but I had asked her to sit in the jump seat and to hold on to Mike during landing, even though he had his lap belt on.”

While FOs do not typically taxi the airplane on the ground, fortunately, the Airbus comes equipped with dual steering tillers, which allowed Steve to quickly taxi to the gate. Once the plane was parked, paramedics immediately boarded the aircraft. “The paramedics did attach what appeared to be EKG [electrocardiogram] leads to Mike upon landing,” Stackelhouse said, “but there were no signals at all.” Captain Michael Johnston was pronounced dead.


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A relief crew was flown in to take the passengers on to Boston, while Stackelhouse and the original crew were released from duty.

Stackelhouse had known Captain Johnston for some time and was understandably shaken. “I had known Mike since we were based together in LAS [Las Vegas] years ago,” Stackelhouse reminisced. “We had flown several trips together, and I had most recently flown with Mike this June. Mike was always very friendly and cordial to me, and we had many a conversation about a wide variety of subjects.”

After several weeks of much-needed time off, Stackelhouse returned to flying the line. Somehow, however, the experience served to strengthen his already strong ties to his family. Life— and the flights—must go on.

FO Stackelhouse would like to thank ATC for its 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 and James Condes, as well as Pilot volunteers FO Ken Hagen, Captain Ken Hewitt, Captain John Scherf, FO Jeff Gonzales and Captain Bill Duxbury, all of whom provided emotional and logistical support throughout that day and the following weeks.

“I was really impressed with the support with which the company provided me and my colleagues; from time off to mental and emotional care,” Stackelhouse said. In particular, he said that he appreciated the debrief that was conducted 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 that Mike died while doing what he loved,” he said.

On behalf of myself and of the Airways staff, I would like to express my deep condolences to the loved ones of Captain Michael Johnston.

Are Co-Pilots Actual Pilots? ‘Pilot Dies Inflight; Co-Pilot Makes Emergency Landing!’

Trumpets one sensationalized headline.

To hear the typical media say it, one would get the impression that disaster was narrowly averted for all on board when the ‘Co- Pilot’—gasp!—took over to fly.

One would also get the impression that airliners are flown single Pilot, and that ‘Co-Pilots’—more properly referred to as First Officers—are merely hanging around to do nothing more than act as their Captain’s personal coffee barista. Indeed, the term ‘Co-Pilot’ itself carries the implication that they are not real Pilots, but sort of apprentice Pilots in training.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“The one thing that struck me as odd throughout this entire experience,” Stackelhouse said, “was that many people have very little idea about what it means to be a First Officer at a major airline in the United States.”

Stackelhouse said that he got comments from friends and even family that seemed to indicate that there was an enormous misunderstanding concerning exactly what the First Officer, or ‘Co-Pilot’, does. He wants people to know that First Officers are equally as qualified as Captains to operate the airplanes they fly.

“We receive the same training and licensure as Captains,” Stackelhouse said. “Pilots throughout this business often times joke that, as a Captain, you should treat your First Officer well— because he or she may be your Captain at your next airline.”

Stackelhouse believes the seniority system used for promotion is partly to blame for the disconnect. At most airlines, the upgrade to Captain is based solely on seniority—that is, how long one has been at the company, relative to all other Pilots.

“I had several people tell me that this event should look good on my resume and help provide a quicker promotion for me to the Captain’s seat. When I explained to them that there is no such thing as performance-based promotion, their eyes would glaze over. In this business, you are only promoted to Captain when your seniority number comes up.”

Indeed, the system has nothing to do with performance or experience. In fact, any Pilot hired at a major US airline is already qualified to be a Captain of any size ship; all that is needed is the aircraft-specific systems and procedures training for the metal to which they are assigned.

And First Officer Stackelhouse’s qualifications? Over 16,000 total flight hours, including over 10,000 hours in Airbus 319/320/321 models. He has BS and MS degrees from the University of North Dakota and an Airline Transport Pilot license. He is type-rated in both Beechcraft 1900 and Airbus 320 aircraft.

Now that’s one highly experienced coffee barista!