Passengers Not Told Pilot of NJ-Bound Jet Had Died

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NEWARK, N.J. - The passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 61 didn't know anything was wrong with their trans-Atlantic crossing until they landed and were met by fire trucks, emergency vehicles and dozens of clamoring reporters.

Their pilot was dead.

"I was shocked," said Dora Dekeyser, of Houston. "Nobody knew anything."

The plane's 60-year-old captain had died of a suspected heart attack midway through Thursday's flight from Brussels, and two co-pilots had taken over the controls.

The crew of the Boeing 777 made an announcement over the loudspeaker asking if there was a doctor on board, but Martha Love, of Greenwich, N.J., who was sitting in the first row of the plane, didn't suspect anything was amiss.

The flight attendants continued to serve snacks. Passengers read magazines and watched movies. And the flight stayed on schedule.

"No one knew," said Love, who only became concerned after the plane landed and she saw emergency vehicles lined up along the runway.

Dr. Julien Struyven, 72, a cardiologist and radiologist from Brussels, examined the pilot in the cockpit and tried to revive him using a defibrillator. But it was too late. Struyven said there was "no chance at all" of saving him.

Simon Shapiro, a passenger from Brooklyn, N.Y., was also unaware. "I didn't hear anything or see anything," he said. "I was wondering why there were so many cops."

Passenger Kathleen Ledger, 45, of Bethlehem, Pa., said she learned about what happened when her cell phone rang after landing.

"My husband called me and told me," she said.

She was impressed with the way the flight crew handled themselves and did not think passengers needed to be informed of the death during the flight.

"They did an incredible job," she said. "I would have done the exact same thing."

The dead pilot was based in Newark and had worked for Continental for 32 years, the airline said.

Continental did not release the name of the pilot. A source speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information identified him as Craig Lenell.

Tom Donaldson, a former leader of the Continental pilots' union who currently flies Boeing 767 jets for the airline, said pilots must pass an extensive physical every six months to remain qualified to fly. The exam includes an electrocardiogram, blood pressure check and a vision test.

For long routes such as trans-Atlantic flights, a third pilot is aboard to permit the captain or first officer to take rest breaks.

Donaldson said there is no specific training on how to react if a crew member becomes incapacitated, but any one of the three pilots is fully qualified to operate the jet.

"Clearly you want another set of eyes watching when you're going down a checklist, but you're capable of flying the airplane yourself," he said. "You can put the gears down, put the flaps down and carry out your other duties by yourself in an emergency."

In 2007, another Continental pilot died at the controls after becoming ill during a flight from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It landed safely with a co-pilot at the controls after being diverted to McAllen, Texas.

Associated Press writers Beth DeFalco in Trenton, N.J., and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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