Off-Duty Bomber Pilot Helps Land a United 737 After Captain Passes Out

United Flight 1637 was supposed to be a quick holiday jaunt for off-duty Air Force Captain Mike Gongol and his family. But when the 737's pilot suffered an apparent heart attack, Gongol ended up in the cockpit, helping guide the plane to an emergency landing that saved 160 souls.

The Des Moines-to-Denver flight's diversion last December was well publicized at the time, but Gongol's role in its safe conclusion seems to have come to light last week, after a military reporter published his story:

Gongol, his wife and daughter were on the way from Des Moines International Airport Dec. 30, with 151 other passengers and six crewmembers, after spending the holidays with his family. To him and his family, the day was just like any other, except for a short flight delay due to weather.

Approximately 30 minutes into the flight, Gongol, a B-1B Lancer pilot, noticed the engines power down to idle. The thoughts immediately started jumping through his head; there were a variety of reasons why the engines would shut down to idle, none of them categorized as normal. Slowly, the aircraft began to descend and turn right.

"Over the public address system; a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board the plane," said Gongol. "A few more calls went out for medical professionals and the flight attendants were all hurrying to first class with their beverage carts and a first-aid kit."

At that moment, Gongol thought it was a medical emergency with a first class passenger, his instincts told him to stay seated and stay out of the way. A fourth call went out, "are there any non-revenue pilots on board, please ring your call button." Immediately, Gongol realized the pilot was the patient. He looked to his wife; as she gave him a nod, Gongol pressed his button and headed toward the flight deck.

All snark and Airplane! references aside: Holy fucking shit. On the long list of places I never want to be, let's bump "commercial jet in a dive with flight attendants searching for doctors and pilots" near the top.

Now, Gongol—shown above in front of his usual ride—didn't land the plane all alone; he merely helped the flight's first officer realize her own badass potential, which is a pretty stellar quality in itself:

"After they moved the pilot, I was asked by the first officer, 'are you a pilot,' which was quickly followed with 'what do you fly,'" said Gongol. "I knew she was in a serious situation and that question gave her five seconds to judge if I would be useful. I also had about five seconds to asses her, 'was she panicking, or was she OK to fly the aircraft?' We both finished our silent assessments, she made the right judgment and told me to close the door and have a seat."

From there, Gongol was calm and collected, and the first officer decided that he would be most useful to talk on the radios, back her up on the aircraft's checklists and look for anything going wrong.

Having been an aircraft commander, Gongol is used to making decisions, but he knew the best way to get the aircraft down safely was to play a support role to the first officer and make things as normal as possible for her. In an emergency situation, he had the ability to place himself outside the situation for a second and make the right call.

"She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, who wouldn't be," said Gongol. "At the beginning, I interrupted her flow of operations, but we figured everything out extremely quickly. She was very impressive."

Though safely on the ground, traffic controllers didn't realize the medical emergency that had grounded the flight was the captain, so they didn't give great instructions on how to taxi. The first officer had never landed at Omaha, so Gongol—who'd landed there while training as a B-1 bomber pilot—gave her another hand.

The captain, by the way, made a full recovery, thanks to the quick landing and a nurse who was also aboard the aircraft.

Gongol had nothing but praise for the crew he worked with. "I saw nothing but the finest professionalism under pressure out of the flight attendants, the nurses and the first officer," he said.

But he added: "Every pilot thinks 'what would I do if this all goes wrong' on an aircraft they are not controlling."

[Photo credit: U.S. Air Force]