BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Flights get diverted to Boise all the time, says Boise airport spokeswoman Patti Miller. The small southwestern Idaho airport has had three flights diverted for medical emergencies in just the past two days.
So it wasn't anything terribly out-of-the ordinary when United Airlines Flight 1603 from Houston to Seattle told the tower Thursday night that they needed to make an emergency landing — except that this time, the medical emergency was happening to the pilot.
The first officer radioed the tower to report the medical emergency at 7:55 p.m. Thursday, Miller said. By 8:10 p.m., the plane was on the ground and Boise firefighters were wheeling a stairway over to the aircraft so they could disembark pilot Henry Skillern and take him to a hospital.
Skillern, a 63-year-old from Humble, Texas, died while he was being treated for a sudden heart attack at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. He had been a pilot for United Airlines for 26 years, United spokeswoman Christen David said.
There were 161 passengers aboard the Boeing 737-900, and the passengers appeared to handle the emergency well, Miller said.
"It seemed like they felt that everything that could be done, was being done. The passengers were concerned for him, but everyone was very calm," she said.
Passenger Ken Martin told Seattle TV station KOMO (http://bit.ly/19Fu3A4) a first-year resident doctor sitting next to him volunteered to help perform CPR. She told Martin the pilot appeared to weigh over 300 pounds and was taken into the first class cabin where CPR was performed.
Passenger Bryant Magill described a calm scene onboard.
"I'm really impressed with all the flight attendants," Magill told KOMO. "They kept themselves calm. They kept it professional. There was no panic on the plane."
Two doctors who helped the pilot were from Madigan Army Medical Center, said Jay Ebbeson, public affairs officer for the hospital at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Both are captains and radiology residents who were returning to the base near Tacoma from a medical course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
The Boeing 737-900 had 161 passengers and a crew of six on board. David, the United spokeswoman, said another pilot flew the original plane and passengers to Sea-Tac Airport.
Glenn Harmon, an aerospace physiologist who was an airline pilot for nine years before he became a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said all commercial airline pilots undergo a medical screening every six months to keep their certification with the FAA.
That screening typically includes a test to measure heart function called an EKG, Harmon said, but the test doesn't necessarily pick up every condition.
Sometimes, the in-flight environment can have a small impact on pre-existing medical conditions, Harmon said. The air on a flight is very dry, usually at between 10 or 20 percent humidity, and that can contribute to dehydration.
"One thing that happens to us as pilots is we might be dehydrated and not know it," Harmon said. "We don't like to guzzle lots of water because it's so complicated now to get up and leave the cockpit to go to the bathroom."
Sitting in a cramped seating position for long periods can lead to deep vein thrombosis, or clots deep inside the body. Passengers can get up from their seats and move around to help prevent DVT, but pilots don't get the same opportunity, Harmon said.
The cabin pressure at altitude also has a very slight effect on blood oxygen levels.
Flight crews train for medical emergencies, and most airlines subscribe to a service that puts them in immediate radio contact with a doctor on the ground in case of emergencies, he said. Additionally, all commercial flights have a first officer who is trained to fly the plane aboard in addition to the pilot. There's often a third, off-duty pilot flying to or from work who can help in an emergency.
And even the biggest commercial aircrafts can generally be flown and landed by just one pilot, Harmon said.
Associated Press writer Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.