Pilot Who Died at Controls Seemed Healthy

Wife says there were no signs of the fatal heart problem

By ADAM GOLDMAN and VICTOR EPSTEIN
|  Friday, Jun 19, 2009  |  Updated 9:30 AM EDT
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Pilot Who Died at Controls Seemed Healthy

A pilot who died while flying a Continental airlines plane from Brussels to Newark was in good health, according to his wife, who saw no signs of the heart problem that apparently killed him.

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NEWARK, N.J. – The Continental Airlines pilot who died on a trans-Atlantic flight from Brussels to Newark was in "perfect health" and fellow crew members initially thought he had just fallen asleep, his wife told a Houston television station.

Craig Lenell, 60, had no known heart condition and underwent twice-a-year physicals, Lynda Lenell told KHOU-TV.

"He was the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known. He would do anything for anyone," Lynda Lenell said. "He called me yesterday from Brussels to tell me he was bringing home some chocolate."

Lenell died of a suspected heart attack midway through Continental Airlines Flight 61 on Thursday. Two co-pilots took over the controls. Passengers didn't know anything was wrong until they landed and were met by fire trucks, emergency vehicles and dozens of clamoring reporters.

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

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.

Lynda Lenell could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press. Houston-area phone numbers listed in the names of Craig and Lynda Lenell were not answered Friday morning.

She told KHOU-TV her husband was an Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam. The couple married in 1973 and had six children and several grandchildren.

"Flying was his life," she said. "He died doing what made him happiest."

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.

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