NEWARK, N.J. - The only inkling passengers had that something was wrong on a Continental Airlines flight over the Atlantic Ocean was when an announcement came over the loudspeaker asking if there was a doctor on board.
Otherwise, flight attendants continued to serve snacks. Passengers read magazines and watched movies. And the flight kept on its schedule.
But in the cockpit, the 60-year-old captain had died of a suspected heart attack and two copilots took over the controls. The 247 passengers aboard did not learn what had happened until Flight 61 from Brussels, Belgium, landed safely around noon yesterday and was met by fire trucks, emergency vehicles, and dozens of reporters.
"I was shocked," said Dora Dekeyser of Houston. "Nobody knew anything."
"We weren't panicking. I never thought it was something as serious as this. We were relaxed," said Dekeyser's granddaughter, Stephanie Mallis, 18, of Lansdale, Montgomery County.
After the crew of the Boeing 777 asked whether there were any doctors aboard, several passengers approached the cockpit, including a doctor who said the pilot appeared to have suffered a heart attack.
Julien Struyven, 72, a cardiologist and radiologist from Brussels, examined the pilot in the cockpit and tried to revive him using a defibrillator. But it was too late. "He was not alive," Struyven said. There was "no chance at all" of saving him.
The pilot was based in Newark and worked for Continental for 32 years, the airline said. A source speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information identified him as Craig Lenell.
Tom Donaldson, a former leader of the Continental pilots' union who currently flies Boeing 767 jets for the airline, said pilots must pass an extensive physical every six months to remain qualified to fly. The exam includes an electrocardiogram, blood-pressure check, and a vision test.
For long routes such as trans-Atlantic flights, a third pilot is aboard to permit the captain or first officer to take rest breaks. Legislation passed in 2007 also included a rule for international flights: A pilot who has turned 60 may be the pilot-in-command only if there is another pilot in the crew younger than 60.
Donaldson said there was no specific training on how to react if a crew member became incapacitated, but any one of the three pilots is fully qualified to operate the jet. "Clearly, you want another set of eyes watching when you're going down a checklist, but you're capable of flying the airplane yourself," he said. "You can put the gears down, put the flaps down, and carry out your other duties by yourself in an emergency."
On yesterday's flight, Martha Love of Greenwich, Gloucester County, was sitting in the first row of the plane. She said passengers were not told what was going on. "No one knew," Love said. She became concerned only after the plane landed, when she saw emergency vehicles lined up along the runway.
Simon Shapiro, a passenger from Brooklyn, was also unaware. "I didn't hear anything or see anything," he said. "I was wondering why there were so many cops."
Passenger Kathleen Ledger, 45, of Bethlehem, Pa., said she learned about what happened when her cell phone rang after landing. "My husband called me and told me," she said.
She was impressed with the way members of the flight crew handled themselves, and did not think passengers needed to be informed of the death during the flight. "They did an incredible job," she said. "I would have done the exact same thing."
There have been previous instances of pilots dying during flights. In April, a passenger landed a privately operated twin-engine plane at Southwest Florida International Airport, in Fort Myers, saving four lives, when the pilot died after takeoff. The passenger had experience flying only single-engine planes, but landed the plane safely with help of traffic controllers
In 2007, a Continental pilot died at the controls on a flight from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It landed safely with a copilot at the controls.