Capt. Mark Gongol, a B-1 pilot now flying C-130s, will receive the Air Force Commendation Medal in recognition of his help in guiding a United Airlines flight to an emergency landing last year. (Air Force photo)
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For Capt. Mark Gongol, piloting an airplane is business as usual. But he became an overnight celebrity after word spread of his help in guiding a United Airlines flight to an emergency landing last year. And in the next few weeks, he’ll be recognized with the Air Force Commendation Medal.
Gongol, a B-1B Lancer pilot with the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, Fort Carson, Colorado, was traveling Dec. 30 with his wife and daughter from Des Moines International Airport, Iowa, to Denver. About 25 minutes into the flight, Gongol noticed the plane descending much earlier than scheduled and changing course.
The crew members made a few calls over the public address system asking for a doctor. Then they asked if there was a pilot on board the Boeing 737. Gongol looked at his wife, who gave him the go-ahead, and he made his way to the flight deck. He soon realized it was the captain of the aircraft who was having a medical emergency.
While crewmembers and nurses Linda Alweiss and Amy Sorenson, on board as passengers, treated the captain, the first officer started making command decisions and asked Gongol to help her in the cockpit as the co-pilot. United did not release the names of the captain or first officer.
“She asked me to take care of the radios and back her up on the checklist, to talk to air traffic control and the ground agencies and to let Omaha [Nebraska airport] emergency services know we were coming in,” Gongol told Air Force Times. “Once I got in the seat, it became all business.”
For the B-1 pilot, the aircraft “differences were minimal,” Gongol said. “It’s very much like if you drove a sedan and then switched over to driving a truck. ... In all, the steering wheel will always be the same.”
After another 20 minutes, they landed in Omaha and the first officer taxied the plane to the gate. “This was her first time taxiing an airplane, but she wanted to do it and she did a great job,” Gongol said.
Soon after, the air stairs rolled up and paramedics came on board to treat the ill captain.
Everyone on the flight — now in Omaha instead of their Denver destination — was put up in hotel rooms for the night, and United Airlines also offered passengers vouchers for a roundtrip ticket in the U.S., Gongol said. He also received a letter of appreciation from the airline.
The United captain, recovering well since his health emergency, called Gongol a few weeks later to thank him for stepping up.
“When the captain called, we talked about how — even after the initial terrible event — everything else that needed to go right went right,” Gongol said. “Everybody and everything just fell into place.”
Gongol notified his commander, Col. Cory Jeffers, after the holidays.
“It took guts to stand up and take care of business to get the aircraft safely on the ground,” Jeffers told Air Force Times.
The Air Force will present Gongol, who’s now piloting C-130s, with his award at his new post with the Air National Guard’s 179th Airlift Wing in Ohio.
“I found myself in this situation and just wanted to help out the captain and everyone on board as best I could,” Gongol said.
Gongol has been an Air Force pilot for 11 years. He’s flown missions in Afghanistan and some support missions between the U.S. and Southwest Asia.