Veterans

That time an Air Force pilot saved a United Airlines flight

For most airmen going on leave for the holidays, the time off means an escape from their everyday Air Force career. After all, when is someone going to need a loadmaster at the liquor store (unless there's a huge bourbon shortage at an egg nog festival and Costco is planning a relief drop from a C-17)?

An Air Force pilot on a United Airlines flight, however, is another story.


Like a scene out of a movie, Captain Mike Gongol was on a flight to see his extended family in Denver from Des Moines in 2013 when the B1-B Lancer pilot noticed the Boeing 737's engine begin to idle — something only another pilot would realize. When the plane began to descend and drift to the right, he knew something was up.

He was right. A nurse on board the flight, Linda Alweiss, entered the cockpit, and found the pilot slumped over in his seat.

The rest of the plane knew something was up when a flight attendant asked the passengers if there was a doctor aboard the plane. They were asked to remain seated as the crew ran up to first class with a medical kit. When the attendants again addressed the passengers, they asked if there were any "non-revenue pilots" aboard the plane.

Gongol realized the pilot was probably the patient – and his Air Force specialty was needed. The first officer must have been the only other pilot aboard. He "looked to his wife as she gave him a nod, and Gongol pressed his button and headed toward the flight deck."

"He was sick and mumbling and was just incoherent," the nurse told KTLA.

A Rockwell B-1 Lancer is a very different craft from a Boeing 737. Differences in weight, crew, engine number and thrust, top speeds and ceilings are all significant factors. The moment Gongol entered the cockpit, he and the first officer sized one another up – he opted to support her as her first officer.

The Air Force captain decided to let her take the lead. He backed up her checklists, used the radio, and kept an eye out for anything going wrong.

"She was calm, but you could tell she was a little stressed, who wouldn't be," Gongol told Air Force Space Command. It was only when they moved to land in Omaha that Gongol took the lead. The first officer had never landed in Omaha, but Capt. Gongol knew the airfield well, landing there many times in training. Still, he talked her through it.

The pilot, as well as the other 157 people aboard the flight, survived the trip.