At 7:59 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 19, Captain Patrick Ford collapsed at the controls of his American Eagle Embraer 175 – only seconds after the 76-seat jet had left the runway in Chicago.
Ford was speaking to an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare, one of the world’s busiest airports, when his voice abruptly stopped, a publicly available recording of the incidents show.
“Can I help you?” the controller anxiously asked, seconds later.
“We need to return, captain is incapacitated,” Ford’s copilot coolly reported.
The jet, bound for Columbus, Ohio, had barely reached 2,000 feet of altitude. Any mistake could have led it to crash within seconds.
But the Embraer’s copilot, Captain Brandon Hendrickson, took control. Hendrickson brought the jet to 5,000 feet and within minutes had it back on the ground at O’Hare. Through Hendrickson was in the first officer’s seat, he was actually overseeing Ford as a “line check airman” because Ford was so new to Envoy Air, a regional carrier owned by American Airlines.
Ford’s body remained in the pilot’s seat throughout.
Envoy’s vice president for flight operations reported the death to its pilots Sunday, but beyond that American and Envoy have not publicly disclosed the near-disaster. A spokesperson for Envoy did not respond to specific questions about what had happened, acknowledging only that a “crew member” had become ill “shortly after departure” and “passed away at the hospital.”
In fact, the recording shows that Ford was either unconscious or dead throughout the short flight. “He’s knocked out,” Hendrickson told the control tower just a minute after taking over. “We’re going to need paramedics.”
Three days later, word of the close call is spreading among pilots at American and elsewhere, who are lauding Hendrickson’s heroism.
“Dude had to keep cool to get this plane on the ground safely and luckily kept a much larger disaster from occurring in the very busy airspace and land beneath Chicago Intl.,” one pilot wrote me.
“His handling of the situation was superb,” another wrote.
Among pilots who resisted mRNA Covid vaccines – a small but vocal minority – Ford’s death has also thrown into question possible cardiac side effects from the shots. American and Envoy declined to disclose if Ford had been vaccinated or boosted. But most pilots are vaccinated, following heavy government and airline pressure in the summer and fall of 2021.
Pilots at American have also noted a sharp increase in disability filings since last summer, although no one has yet directly connected those to the mRNA shots.
Addendum: the questions from me American and Envoy would not answer, reproduced verbatim:
1) Has a cause of death been determined? Will an autopsy be performed and will its findings be made public?
2) How old was Captain Ford? Was he married and did he have children? Where was he based and where did he live?
3) When did Captain Ford join AA/Envoy? Where had he worked previously (I am told Republic Airways)? Was he given a medical exam upon joining? Are medical exams standard procedures for new pilots at Envoy, or does a standard FAA clearance serve instead?
4) How recently had he received medical clearance to fly? My understanding is that pilots over 40 must receive an FAA medical certificate every six months, and those under 40 once a year.
5) Can AA/Envoy provide any details about the incident and the flight? I have seen a text from someone who claims to have spoken to Captain Hendrickson claiming that the aircraft went into a steep bank and only quick action from Captain Hendrickson averted disaster. Is this correct?
6) How many passengers were on board the aircraft?
7) What steps if any does AA/Envoy plan to take as a result of this incident?
8) Was Captain Ford vaccinated against Covid? Had he received a booster or a second booster?