United pilot flying from Houston dies after heart attack

United Airlines

A United Airlines pilot died after suffering a heart attack while flying from Houston to Seattle, forcing crew members to make an emergency landing in Idaho while two doctors on board did CPR in the first-class cabin.

Pilot Henry Skillern, 63, of Humble, was still alive when firefighters and paramedics ran to his aid Thursday night on the Boise Airport tarmac. He died a short time later while being treated at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, spokeswoman Jennifer Krajnik said.

Skillern had been a pilot for United Airlines for 26 years.

Passengers aboard the Boeing 737-900 flown by Skillern seemed to handle the emergency well, Boise airport spokeswoman Patti Miller said.

“It seemed like they felt that everything that could be done was being done,” she said. “The passengers were concerned for him, but everyone was very calm.”

Lee Van Doren, who spends much of his time shuttling between his home in Seattle and Houston said he knew something was amiss when the airliner suddenly made a major left turn more than an hour before their expected destination.

“I fly this route so many times I know every single turn and movement,” Van Doren said Friday. The IT consultant for an energy company said he has logged more than a million air miles along the Houston-Seattle route in the past 10 years.

He was in the window seat of the economy section’s first row when he saw a flight attendant suddenly dash toward the cockpit area. The attendant was followed by a pair of men dressed in Army camouflage uniforms.

“They stood right between coach and first class. They were shoulder to shoulder, blocking the view to the rest of the plane. I thought at first, it was a security problem,” Van Doren said.

A passenger on the aisle said he could see forward and noticed the cockpit door was open.

“We knew something was wrong,” Van Doren said.

The airliner landed in Boise and pulled up to a stair car and waiting emergency vehicles. Paramedics went up the stairs and carried Skillern from the airliner.

They worked on the captain for about 10 minutes then took him by ambulance to the hospital, he said.

Passengers were told of the incident after the airliner pulled forward to the gate, he said.

Passenger Bryant Magill described a professional scene onboard.

“I’m really impressed with all the flight attendants,” Magill told Seattle TV station KOMO. “There was no panic. … ”

United spokeswoman Christen David declined to release details about how the crew members realized the pilot was in distress and what their next steps were. The first officer radioed air traffic controllers at 7:55 p.m. to report the aircraft needed to make an emergency landing; the plane was on the ground in Boise by 8:10 p.m., Miller said.

The two doctors and an off-duty United Airlines pilot were among the 161 people aboard the flight. The off-duty pilot aided the first officer – who is also a trained pilot – in landing the plane while the physicians performed CPR.

The 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.

Glenn Harmon, an aerospace physiologist who was an airline pilot for nine years before becoming 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.