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SkyWest Flight Makes Emergency Landing After Medical Problem, Confusion

Emergency vehicles surround a SkyWest Airlines plane, operating as United Express, that made an emergency landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, April 22, 2015, in Cheektowaga, N.Y.
Gary Wiepert | AP
Emergency vehicles surround a SkyWest Airlines plane, operating as United Express, that made an emergency landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, April 22, 2015, in Cheektowaga, N.Y.

An unconscious passenger alarmed a SkyWest Airlines pilot into making a swift descent and emergency landing in Buffalo, New York, on Wednesday, after he thought the person might have passed out from a dangerous drop in air pressure, the airline said.

It turned out to be a medical problem, SkyWest said. But, before that was known, the pilot dove the plane over 20,000 feet in just minutes to get to the altitude of 10,000 feet — where the air is breathable. (Tweet This)

A SkyWest spokeswoman said pilots rapidly descended "out of an abundance of caution."

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The plane dove as fast as 7,000 feet per minute, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Two other passengers also passed out on the flight, the airline said, but it did not say whether that occurred before, during or after the descent.

"We were all told to just keep breathing and as we were told to keep breathing, we suddenly went into a nose dive," said passenger Vanessa Bergmann. "And that rapid descent was incredibly scary. It really felt that we were diving down uncontrollably."

The Chicago-to-Hartford flight landed safely in Buffalo, where the passenger got medical attention, and accommodations were made for the other 75 passengers, the airline said.

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Likely because of the harrowing ride, an additional 15 adults and two children were evaluated upon landing, but none required treatment outside the airport, airport spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said.

"There were no reports before the unconscious passenger prior to the initiated descent, but I can't speak to what may have been the specific cause of their feeling ill," said SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow.

Snow said later Wednesday that the aircraft was checked and "there have been no indications of a pressurization problem or other issues with the aircraft," but an investigation continued.

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Based on the pilot's radio report to air traffic control, the Federal Aviation Administration also initially believed there was a pressurization problem.

Snow said that oxygen masks never deployed.