This is US Air Force Captain Mark Gongol and his usual ride, a B-1B Lancer. But on 30 December 2013, Gongol wasn’t flying his four-engine supersonic strategic nuclear bomber. He was just one of the 151 passengers inside United Flight 1637, but, when the pilot had a cardiac problem, he knew he had to step in.
The details of his little adventure just came out today: Gongol — who was with his wife and daughter returning from holidays — knew something was wrong when their Boeing 737 put its engines on idle and made a turn just 30 minutes after leaving DesMoines. His instinct was confirmed a few minutes later, he told to Staff Sgt Jacob Jordan, of the 21st Space Wing Public Affairs, US Air Force Space Command:
Over the public address system; a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane. 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.
Another call came asking for a pilot, so he immediately went to the cockpit. There he found the pilot in shock, attended by the flight attendants. There was the first officer too:
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?’ 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.
She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, who wouldn’t be. At the beginning, I interrupted her flow of operations, but we figured everything out extremely quickly. She was very impressive.
Gongol assisted her, following her lead. While some may think that flying a sophisticated machine like the B-1B Lancer would automatically make you capable of safely flying any jet, every complex aeroplane requires its own training and qualification. Little things can go wrong and escalate if you don’t follow the established checklist and procedures.
Conversely, flying a 737 alone is not easy either. That’s why they carry two pilots on board — for redundancy in case of emergency and also to make sure that they don’t miss any crucial step and endanger the aircraft and its passengers.
Happily, everything went well. In fact, the most stressful part came after touchdown, when the first officer had to taxi the aeroplane for the first time in Omaha, an airport she had never visited before. Fortunately, Gongol remembered it.
Without Gongol, the first officer would have had a more difficult time taking the plane home. At the end, it was his help and their flawless team work which ultimately won the precious minutes that saved the pilot’s life.