A pilot died during a transatlantic flight into Newark Airport, leaving the co-pilot and another officer, one of whom is from the Lehigh Valley, to bring the plane in safely.
Flight 61 from Brussels, Belgium, landed on schedule at noon Thursday. The co-pilot flew the Boeing 777 and another Continental pilot who was aboard the plane was at the controls as well, according to Continental officials. One of the two first officers who helped land the plane safely was Jeff Titus of Macungie Township, Lehigh County.
Continental released a statement saying the pilot appears to have died of natural causes.
"The company has been in touch with his family and we extend our deepest sympathies," the airline's statement said.
Continental did not name the pilot, but said he was 60 years old and had worked for the airline for 32 years.
Sources told NBC that the pilot complained of chest pains and called for help before losing consciouness. Three or four medical doctors who happened to be aboard the plane were discreetly rounded up by the crew and rushed to the front to help. The other passengers were not told what was happening and most apparently never knew there was an emergency.
Dr. Julien Struyven, 72, of Brussels, said he used a defibrillator on the pilot, but it was too late.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
After the flight passengers on board spoke out.
Passenger Kathleen Ledger, 45, of Bethlehem, Pa., said she learned about what happened when her cell phone rang after the plane landed.
"When we landed, my husband called me and told me," she said.
She said she was impressed with the way the flight crew handled themselves -- including serving snacks during the crisis -- and doesn't think passengers should have been informed of the death during the flight.
"They did an incredible job," she said. "I would have done the exact same thing."
Newark was experiencing two-and-a-half-hour delays due to heavy rains, but the inbound plane was given priority clearance.
It is not clear if the pilot's age was a factor, but until recently, pilots over the age of 60 were forced to retire. The Dec. 14, 2007 Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act raised the age to 65, although for international flights one pilot must be under age 60.
Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot credited with saving 155 people aboard a flight out of JFK Airport in January after the planes engines were disabled by geese, is 58. Sullenberger coolly landed the plane in the Hudson River where all of the passengers and crew were rescued.