Emergency landing raises questions about what determines whether pilots are fit to fly

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by HEATHER GRAF / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @HeatherGrafK5

KING5.com

Posted on September 27, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 27 at 10:46 PM

In the wake of an emergency landing prompted by a pilot's heart attack, some are asking questions about what determines whether a pilot is fit to fly.

63-year-old Henry Skillern died after suffering a heart attack while in the cockpit of a Seattle-bound United Airlines flight. 

He was just two years shy of the age at which the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airline pilots to retire.  There have also been reports that Skillern weighed about 300 pounds.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airline pilots over the age of 40 to undergo a medical screening every six months.

Dr. Richard Pellerin of Seattle has been administering those tests since 1985.  He's an FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner, and has evaluated 20,000 pilots over the years.

As soon as he heard Skillern might have been overweight, Pellerin says he knew passengers would be concerned.

"When I first heard that, what goes through my mind is that it's going to be very alarming to the public to hear that," he said.

Pellerin understands those concerns, but says the number on the scale is ultimately not enough to keep a pilot grounded.

"Weight is not allowed to be a criteria as a pass/fail mark," he said.

Instead, the medical screenings use an EKG to test heart function, but Pellerin says that doesn't necessarily pick up every condition. 

He also looks for adult onset diabetes, which is often present in people who are overweight.

Still, Pellerin believes the rarity of incidents like this one are proof the FAA's system is working.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of this, the very first time," he said.  "What I hope the traveling public takes away from this is that the only person who died was the pilot.  They were all alive and well, just like they are on thousands of other flights every single day."

Back at SeaTac, passengers seemed to take that message to heart.

"It would be discriminatory," said one passenger, when asked if pilots over a certain weight shouldn't be allowed to fly.  "They said Skillern went through the physical and passed everything, so let him fly."

 

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