Feb. 27, 2012
Back in the middle seventies, National Airlines had 10 DC-10’s a day flying from Miami/Ft. Lauderdale to LaGuardia Airport in New York. These were new, state-of-the-art heavy jets that did most of the heavy lifting for the National fleet. They had large, comfortable cockpits, with huge windows, and were really fun to fly.
I was co-pilot on one of these New York trips on a cold winter’s night with Captain Boots Shaw, a huge man, and a cantankerous curmudgeon who some co-pilots tried to avoid. I was not necessarily one of them because I would tell Boots that the Flight Engineer was a closet smoker, so Boots would ignore me and scrutinize the FE the entire trip.
A winter storm was pounding New England and air traffic was backed up and stacked up because of moderate to heavy snow at all three NYC airports. We were on top of the weather in a holding pattern over Deer Park, northeast of La Guardia. Lightning flashed from the clouds beneath us. Boots was flying the airplane and I was working the radios and looking over possible alternate airports, because it appeared a diversion was a definite possibility.
Unexpectedly, a flight attendant rushed through the cockpit door. “Boots!” she shouted. “We have a passenger who’s having a heart attack. There’s a nurse across the aisle from him and she says it looks like a heart attack to her.”
Following Boot’s command, I declared a medical emergency with New York Center. They switched me to LaGuardia approach control and to my surprise we were cleared direct to the airport with an immediate descent for an approach.
Boots pulled the throttles to idle, extended the speed brakes, and accelerated toward max speed as we dived toward the airport. I was extremely busy talking on the radios and adjusting the radar, and was concerned about the weather between us and the rapidly approaching airport. My main concern, however, soon became the high speed at which Boots was flying. I was worried about having to do a go-around because we would soon be screaming through the final approach course or the glide path. I was thinking just how I was going to tell Boots to slow down.
KA-BOOM!!! A lightning bolt struck the nose of the airplane directly in front of my face. How big is a bolt of lightning? I can tell you this one was at least three feet wide. I was temporarily blinded by the flash that cascaded throughout the entire airplane.
After what seemed like an eternity, I regained my vision and was surprised to see that all the components of the jumbo jet appeared to still be functioning. Boots had a vice-grip on the control yoke and appeared unfazed.
“Boots,” I said. “You can slow down now. If the man has a weak heart, that lightning strike surely killed him. And if it didn’t kill him, he’s going to be just fine.”
Boots slowed the aircraft and did a nice job landing the big jet on the snow-covered runway. The passenger indeed had a heart attack, but was given exceptional care by the paramedics and the nearby hospital, and survived.
Good job, Boots.