"Now that it's all said and done, it all kind of sits on you that this could ve been so much worse," Heidi McLaughlin tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated October 07, 2015 04:55 PM
Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

When an American Airlines pilot died suddenly during a red-eye flight early Monday, the plane’s first officer made a successful emergency landing, saving the lives of 152 people on board.

One of those passengers, novelist and mother of two Heidi McLaughlin, is hoping to give that first officer the recognition he deserves. “The co-pilot landed this plane as his partner died right next to him,” McLaughlin tells PEOPLE. “That to me is a hero.”

The captain, who has been identified as 57-year-old Michael Johnston, died of a heart attack somewhere en route from Phoenix to Boston, his wife Betty Jean Johnston told NBC News.

In an audio recording from the cockpit posted by LiveATC.net, the co-pilot can be heard telling the control tower, “A medical emergency. Captain is incapacitated, request handling for runway one zero landing.”

After requesting the emergency landing in Syracuse, New York, the first officer, whose name has not been released, managed a smooth landing amidst the chaos.

The co-pilot handled the emergency landing so calmly, McLaughlin says, that passengers’ only indication that something was wrong was that “the flight attendants were crying.”

“There was no panic, our oxygen masks didn t fall from overhead, our luggage didn t come rolling out,” she continues. “If we didn t find out after, we would have had no idea [that the pilot had died]. The co-pilot put that bird down so fast and so efficiently.”

Passengers deplaned in Syracuse while EMTs attended to the pilot. After the pilot’s body was removed, passengers boarded the same plane and a replacement crew completed the flight’s path to Boston.

“Now that it’s all said and done, it all kind of sits on you that this could ve been so much worse,” McLaughlin says. “[The co-pilot] could ve panicked, he could ve freaked out, he could ve not been in the cockpit when all this happened. This could’ve easily turned into such a huge catastrophe that he avoided.”

She adds, “It’s a hard thing to grasp at the end of the day when you realize that we might not be here if he didn t act the way that he did.”