American Airlines Capt. Michael Johnston died of a heart-attack mid-flight from Phoenix to Boston early Monday morning, his wife Betty Jean Johnston told NBC News.
The 57-year-old veteran pilot had a double-bypass heart surgery in 2006, but had otherwise been in good health, his wife said, adding that the airline required Johnston to have a physical every six months to continue piloting.
“He loves flying,” Johnston said. “He is very loving and caring, and he’ll do anything for anybody – bend over backwards, try and help out anyone as much as he can. He’s always been that way.”
She said the couple, parents of eight kids ages 12 to 34, would have celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary on Oct. 18.
Johnston’s final flight, which carried 147 passengers and five crew members, was diverted to Syracuse, New York. The airline said the co-pilot landed the jet safely at 7 a.m. ET Monday. “We landed and had no idea what was going on,” said passenger Louise Anderson. “Airport security was waiting for us. They let us know that they were going to get another crew to fly us to Boston.”
It wasn’t until the second flight with a new crew that passengers were told the pilot had passed away, so “there was no time to panic when we were on the flight,” Anderson said. She added that American Airlines “handled the situation really professionally.”
“All of us at American extend our condolences to Mike’s wife, Betty Jean, and to his entire family,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in a statement. “They have lost a husband and father, and many of you have lost a personal friend.”
Parker specifically thanked Johnston’s co-pilot and crew. “They took extraordinary care of Mike, each other and our customers. We couldn’t be more proud of the teamwork this crew showed during an extremely difficult time,” he said.
Johnston started his career with America West Airlines in January 1990. He flew the 737 and the 757, before being upgraded to captain on the A320, American said.