In a recent United Airlines flight, from Houston, Texas to Seattle, Washington, 63-year old Henry Skillern, suffered a heart attack and the plane was forced to land in Boise, Idaho. Skillern, a pilot with United Airlines for 26 years, was taken to a Boise hospital where he later died. The mid-flight heart attack of the pilot of United Airlines Flight 1603 has raised some questions about the health requirements of pilots in the commercial airline industry.
Every pilot must have a medical certificate from a designated FAA examiner, called a flight surgeon. Captains of commercial airlines, such as Skillern, must receive a First Class 1 medical certificate, which they have to renew every six months. With the First Class 1 certificate, the pilot must meet stricter health standards for longer flights as compared to private plane pilots who can fly with a First Class 3 certificate.
To meet First Class 1 certification, pilots undergo a medical exam mandated by the FAA. Specific health standards must be met especially those for heart and lung function, physical dexterity, and eyesight. The exam also includes an EKG, to measure heart function. But, when a pilot suffers a mid-flight heart attack, passengers begin to raise questions about the safety of flying on United Airlines and the health requirements of the entire industry.
Having the First Class 1 medical certification does not guarantee a medical emergency will not happen during a flight. Circumstances in the cabin of the plane can sometimes influence a pre-existing condition. The typical airline cabin has very low humidity, between 10 and 20 percent, which can cause dehydration to occur. Cabin pressure can slightly effect blood oxygen levels, while sitting in the same position and being unable to get up and move around for long stretches of time can cause deep vein thrombosis. According to Boise airport spokesperson, Patti Miller, it is rare for serious medical crises to happen to pilots who undergo medical screening on a regular basis.
A passenger on United Airlines Flight 1603 told a Seattle television station during an interview, she thought Skillern “appeared to weigh over 300 pounds.” According to a pilot with another airline, who wished to remain nameless, there are no weight restrictions for pilots set by the FAA. As long as a pilot can pass the FAA medical exam, that pilot is authorized to fly. Pilots diagnosed as insulin-dependent or with epilepsy are the only pilots restricted from flying.
In the event of such mid-air medical emergencies, Miller stated that it is not uncommon for planes to be diverted to the nearest airport and that airports are always ready for such diversions. In the case of the United Airlines Flight 1603, the Boeing 737 touched down safely and everyone on board was unharmed, including Skillern, who was still alive when paramedics met him on the tarmac and took him to Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, where he died shortly thereafter.
Flying is still one of the safest ways to travel, according to the Aviation Safety Network. A well-prepared airport and airline personnel trained for specific emergencies can handle medical crises in the air. The mid-flight heart attack of United Airlines pilot, Henry Skillern, should be seen as a rare case, even as it raises questions about industry health requirements.
By: Lisa Nance