Off-duty bomber pilot helps land plane after pilot falls ill

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An Air Force reporter says an off-duty bomber pilot played a pivotal role in an emergency landing in Omaha last December when the pilot in control of a United Airlines 737 fell ill.  (

On Dec. 30, United Flight 1637 was on the way from Des Moines to Denver when a call was put out to the passengers, asking if there was a doctor aboard the plane.

After a flurry of activity, a second call went out, this time for “any non-revenue pilots on board,” according to Capt. Mark Gongol, an off-duty Air Force captain who was traveling with his wife and daughter.

Gongol pressed his call button and soon found out the pilot was down. He joined the first officer in the cockpit.

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“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,” Staff Sgt. Jacob Morgan wrote.

In his interview, Gongol gave the first officer all the credit for landing safely.

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

Once landed, the first officer asked Gongol if he knew where to taxi because it was her first time at the Omaha airport. Gongol did have an idea because he had trained as a bomber pilot at the airport.

The story has a happy ending for the pilot, as well. He’s recovering and was able to thank Gongol directly.