The death of the 60-year-old captain of a Continental Airlines jetliner as he flew 247 passengers across the Atlantic could spark a new debate over age limits in the cockpit.
Craig Lenell, the pilot who died Thursday, was believed to have suffered a heart attack. A cardiologist aboard the plane tried to revive him with a defibrillator.
Until 2007, U.S. rules required airline pilots to retire at 60, but Congress raised the limit to 65.
Backers of the higher age limit say pilot deaths are rare and that there is no medical basis to reinstate the age-60 rule.
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"This is going to bring attention back to the issue," said Shirley Phillips, a former pilot trainer and now an aviation professor at Daniel Webster College, "but it's such a rare event that it wouldn't be justified to go back to the age 60."
Safety experts said any health risks posed by older pilots should be balanced against the advantages of experience in the cockpit, which was displayed in January, when US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger safely landed in New York's Hudson River after the jetliner was crippled by bird strikes taking off from LaGuardia Airport.
Sullenberger is 58.
According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Thursday's death was the sixth of a pilot at the controls of a U.S. jetliner since the agency started keeping records in 1994. The previous pilots who died during flight ranged in age from 48 to 57.
Captains over 40 must pass a medical exam including an electrocardiogram every six months to keep flying, while most other pilots need yearly checkups.
Before Thursday, the last reported death of a pilot on a U.S. commercial flight occurred in 2007. The pilot of a Continental jet flying from Houston to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, died after takeoff. The plane made a safe emergency landing in Texas.