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Local USAF pilot helps in airline emergency

Capt. Mark Gongol, 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director of operations at Fort Carson, helped land a commercial 737 Dec. 30 when the pilot had a medical emergency. The pilot has since recovered, due in part to Gongol helping with the emergency landing. Gongol is a B-1B Lancer pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Capt. Mark Gongol, 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director of operations at Fort Carson, helped land a commercial 737 Dec. 30 when the pilot had a medical emergency. The pilot has since recovered, due in part to Gongol helping with the emergency landing. Gongol is a B-1B Lancer pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Most people think that during an emergency they would step up to the plate, act heroically and do what is necessary to save lives. Thinking one might rescue the day is a noble thought, but acting on those thoughts is what sets the nation's heroes above noble thinkers.

"Every pilot thinks 'what would I do if this all goes wrong' on any aircraft," said Capt. Mark Gongol, 13th Air Support Operations Squadron assistant director of operations at Fort Carson. "As a professional courtesy, we all know the aircrew at civilian airlines are extremely well qualified, but as a byproduct of being a pilot, I always have a heightened awareness when flying. However, I never thought I would be in the situation I was in."

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 throttle back 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.

Arriving at the flight deck, Gongol saw four flight attendants and two passenger nurses assembling a make-shift bed, medical kits were strewn across the ground and the captain of the aircraft was seated in his chair, eyes dilated, sweaty, clammy and disoriented. Gongol immediately thought the pilot was suffering some serious cardiac trauma.

"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 assess her, 'was she panicking, or was she OK to fly the aircraft?' We both finished our silent assessments, and she 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, we both were, 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."

There were hundreds of issues the two pilots talked through on the aircraft while descending; re-setting cabin pressure, configuring the aircraft for approach, contact with air traffic control, briefing visual cues and programming of the auto-pilot were just a few, said Gongol. At about 500 feet above ground level, the first officer hand-flew the approach to a normal touchdown.

After landing, the first officer turned to Gongol and asked if he knew where to taxi, she had never been to the Omaha airport before. Taken aback by how cool, calm and collected the first officer had acted without knowing the airport, Gongol remembered landing at the airport before pilot training.

"Surprisingly, taxiing was the most stressful part of the day for the first officer," said Gongol. "She had never taxied a 737 before and the ATC had no idea that the pilot was the reason for the emergency. Also, the 737 can only be taxied from the captain's (left) seat. She decided the best thing was to switch seats and taxi closer to the ramp so as to expedite getting the captain to medical help."

As the air stairs went down and the aircraft was shut down, Gongol and the first officer talked through the decisions they had just made. Gongol assured the first officer that he would have taken the exact same actions had he been in her place.

The captain of the aircraft is recovering well and contacted Gongol directly to thank him. The crew of the aircraft, the two nurses who provided first aid for the captain and the first officer have all been in contact with Gongol; an emergency has brought together several strangers as friends.

"I saw nothing but the finest professionalism under pressure out of the flight attendants, the nurses and the first officer," said Gongol. "Everyone aboard the aircraft remained calm, there is no doubt in my mind this contributed above all else to our successful outcome. In my opinion any military pilot would have done the exact same thing I did."

Gongol acted in an emergency situation, realized the role that would be best for him to play and while he was not necessarily the direct savior to more than 150 souls on board, his actions contributed to a safe ending to the flight. His actions, according to him, do not make him a hero.

"I am sincerely glad to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been party to a successful outcome. I think the captain (of the airliner) summed it up best when we he said 'it was a bad event where a lot of things went right.'"

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