It was a long flight. We were flying from New York’s JFK airport to Los Angeles (LAX). The flight plan time was over seven hours due to strong winter headwinds.
My First Officer was on his first pairing after IOE (initial operating experience – the first time he was flying with a Captain that was not a “training” Captain).
Although it was our first time flying together, we’d developed an excellent repertoire.
We were in hour 5 of our flight when we received a call from the flight attendant. As it was the FO’s leg, and he was PF (pilot flying), I answered the intercom.
“Hello, it’s Dale,” I said.
“Hi, this is Jill,” I heard. Jill was the #1, or lead Flight attendant. “We just wanted to let you know we have passenger in the rear galley who was complaining of chest pains. He seems okay now, after taking some antacids. We asked if there were any Doctors on board and an Emergency Room MD responded but everything seems okay.”
“Cool. Do me favor, though, would you mind having them fill out the MedForm anyway? Just tell them it’s for our records and we’ll destroy them on arrival, but get all the information and the Doctor’s name and info, too so we can thank them later,” I said. “And don’t forget the passenger seat number.”
“Okay, no problem.”
“It’s good practice anyway,” I smiled.
“You got it boss,” she said in response.
After hanging up, I told First Officer Dave, “You know, just for fun, why don’t you put Las Vegas into the secondary flight plan? We probably will not need it but….”
“Sure, Dale,” he said. “I need the practice anyway.”
A few minutes later we received another chime.
“Hi, it’s Dale,” I said on the intercom.
“We slid the form under the door,” I heard Jill say. “The passenger seems to be doing better now.”
“Great news!” I said. “And thanks for filling out the form.”
“Doesn’t look like we’ll need it,” she said. “Thank goodness!”
“Excellent! By the way, we should be a few minutes early in to LAX,” I responded.
“Sounds good to us… Doing a transcon turn we’re exhausted!”
I hung up the intercom I turned and retrieved the MedForm. I tossed the form into a corner. I resisted the urge to throw it in the “circular file” or waste bin from an old habit of never throwing away any paperwork until the end of the flight.
I grinned at the FO. “At least we’ll not be need that!” I said.
“Thank God,” he said. “We still have another leg after this!”
As I leaned back into my chair, we continued to discuss the very important metaphors of a Futurama episode.
About 5 minutes later, we got another chime.
“Jill, don’t tell me you’ve got *another* problem,” I said with a smile in my voice. “I don’t know if we can handle it!”
“That passenger from before is nonresponsive,” Jill said.
For context, a passenger *never dies on an airplane*. Only a Doctor can determine whether someone is dead. But nonresponsive means no pulse, no breathing, no sign of life.
“We’ve applied the AED and it has supplied a couple of shocks,” Jill continued. “We are continuing CPR and the EMT Doctor says we need to get this airplane on the ground ASAP.”
“Roger that,” I responded. I sat up. “We’ll be diverting into Vegas. We’ll be on the ground in less than 15 minutes. Let the passengers know and I’ll try to make an announcement shortly.”
I hung up the intercom. “Okay Dave, you’ve got ATC and the airplane. Tell them we are declaring an emergency and we are diverting into Las Vegas. Get the box set up,” I said. “Set speed for Mach .81 and 340 knots on the transition.”
“The box” is the flight management computer that helps navigate the airplane. Mach .81 is the maximum safe speed of the Airbus 320 and 340 knots is the fastest speed in knots as we transition from Mach to Airspeed. What I was saying was to fly balls-to-the-wall, pedal-to-the-medal fast. In other words, floor it to Las Vegas. Break every speed limit.
“You got it,” Dave said.
At that point, I let him fly the airplane while I did the coordination and communication with everyone else. I contacted dispatch, Las Vegas Ops, and I talked to the passengers. I also contacted our Physician On Call, to advise him what we were doing. The MD was upset that we had chosen to divert prior to contacting him, as *he would have chosen for us to continue to LAX* which he said in no uncertain terms. Fortunately for the dead… I mean “unresponsive” … person, it was too late to follow the MD’s advice. Once he knew we’d already diverted, he then asked for the information from the MedForm. Thankfully, I still had it. Because of that, the MD was able to contact the EMT’s who were to meet the aircraft in Las Vegas and instructed them on exactly what needed to happen the moment they boarded the airplane.
By the end of that conversation, as we were approaching 10,000 feet, I said “Advise ATC we will be exceed 250 knots below 10,000 feet.”
“Okay,” Dave responded.
In the United States, the maximum airspeed below 10,000 feet is 250 knots. We were going to blow through that speed limit at 340 knots plus. When Dave advised ATC, the only response was “Roger”.
“Hey Dale, do you want to take the airplane?” Dave asked as we passed through 8,000 feet.
“Naw,” I responded. “You’re doing great. I’ll talk you through it.”
Although it is unusual to being flying so fast on final approach on an ILS, we maintained 340 knots until the last possible moment (at about 2000 AGL), where we then used every available method to slow the airplane in order to be stable, on speed and configured by 1,000 feet above the field. The FO landed the airplane at the right exact spot so we could immediately proceed to the gate with undo delay.
The time from touchdown to arriving at the gate was exactly 1 minute (the minimum cooldown for the engines… we timed it). Later, a ramper told me, “I’ve never seen an Airbus taxi that fast!”
We never exceeded any aircraft limits on the ground. We were just… efficient. To the second.
The EMT’s immediately met the aircraft. The person was removed. I made the following announcement:
“Ladies and Gentleman, we understand that Las Vegas was not in your travel plans today. It wasn’t on ours, either. However, a person’s life is far more important to all of us than a timely arrival. We appreciate your understanding, and I will be walking through the cabin to answer any questions you may have. We will refuel and be on our way to Los Angeles as quickly as we can. Thank you.”
On a completely full aircraft, no one seemed to object or complain about our diversion, and as I walked through the cabin I was amazed at the compassion and understanding of all our passengers. There was no complaining, exasperation, or negativity.
We refueled, redispatched, and taxied to the runway to depart to Los Angeles. During our taxi, Las Vegas tower called us on the radio.
“Hey guys, we just wanted to let you know,” Tower said. “We got a call from the hospital. They wanted to let you know that the guy will make it. They said if you had arrived 5 minutes later he wouldn’t have.”
The FO and I looked at each other.. We smiled at a job well done. We’d done good. Broken a few rules but saved a life. We let the rest of the passengers know.
We heard a cheer through our bullet proof door.
When you need to break the rules, don’t be afraid to exercise that Captain authority.
We didn’t file an ASAP and we never heard a word from the FAA, or kudos from the company, or anyone else. Until now, no one else has ever heard the story and nobody knows about it other than those folks on that flight.
But we knew.. We had exercised great crew communication and CRM, we worked well with the Flight Attendants, the EMT’s, and the personnel in Las Vegas.
It was just another day on the job as an airline pilot.
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