Dead at 33,000 feet: From the man who choked on airplane food to the teenager killed by other passengers

Imagine you are the only passenger in a small plane and suddenly the pilot keels over, dead. Such were the circumstances that befell an 80 year old Wisconsin woman last month.

A 31 year old man named Robert Rippingale choked to death on a piece of meat last September, while on board a Jetstar flight from Singapore to Auckland, New Zealand. His girlfriend spent the remainder of the flight—9 hours—sitting beside his body.

She was flying over the northeastern part of the state with her husband in a twin-engine Cessna when he suddenly became unconscious at the controls and died. The elderly woman, who had no flying experience whatsoever, radioed for help and a local airport sent a second plane up to coach her down. Her right engine ran out of fuel and lost power but she was able to land successfully at Cherryland Airport, in Door County. “We’re very proud of her for doing what she did,” the Door County Sheriff told reporters. “It was a very difficult situation with her husband unconscious next to her.”

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While situations as dramatic as this one are rare, deaths on planes are common enough. One of the most ridiculous, and tragic examples happened last September, aboard an 11 hour Jetstar flight from Singapore to Auckland, New Zealand. Robert Rippingale was bringing his girlfriend Vanessa back home to meet his parents and travel the scenic island country. The couple was so excited for the trip they arrived at the airport 6 hours early. But an hour and a half into the flight disaster struck. Dinner was served, Rippingale chose the beef, eating his meal while enjoying an in-flight movie. Suddenly, Vanessa peered at her boyfriend and noticed he was shaking. “I thought he was laughing very hard,” she later told the Daily Mail. “Then I looked at his face and his eyes were rolling and he couldn’t talk. His lips were turning purple.” Vanessa screamed. A doctor and two nurses were among the passengers and took Rippingale into the galley to perform CPR. They were unable to save him. Rippingale’s body was moved to a crew rest area and covered with a blanket. Vanessa sat with him for the remainder of the flight, some nine hours.

After the 60 year old captain on a Continental flight from Brussels to Houston suffered a heart attack one of two co-pilots took the controls. An announcement was made, calmly asking passengers if there was a doctor on board. There was, a 72 year old cardiologist from Brussels. He tried to revive the captain with a defibrillator, but it was too late. The other 246 passengers aboard had no idea what had happened until the plane landed in Houston to an entourage of fire trucks, emergency vehicles and reporters. Passengers turned on their cell phones to learn they were on the news. “It’s not a drama,” Hugues Duval, the 29 year old co-pilot who took over, told reporters. Although Duval had never landed a 777 before he said he wasn’t nervous. “I did it in a simulator,” he explained.

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One of the craziest and most controversial plane deaths was the curious case of Jonathan Burton, a 19 year old who tried to break into the cockpit during a September 2000 Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. “He just went ballistic,” a passenger who was sitting next to him later told a reporter. More than half a dozen passengers swarmed Burton and brought him to the ground. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but by the time the flight arrived in Salt Lake City Burton was dead. Initially, authorities believed he died of a heart attack. An autopsy later revealed he had actually died of asphyxiation. Contusions and abrasions were found on his torso, face and neck, and he suffered other blunt force injuries. An article that ran in TIME a few weeks after the incident entitled “<a href=”http://www.tim

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