United Airlines Pilot: I Brought Coronavirus To The U.S. Before Health Authorities Say This Started

On January 14 the World Health Organization parroted China that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. The next day the U.S. had its first identified case but we wouldn’t know it for six more days. New York didn’t confirm it had a case until the end of February.

Vaughn Cordle was a United Airlines Boeing 787 pilot, flying out of Beijing several times a month. He noticed an uptick in sick passengers on his flights between China and Washington Dulles as far back as December, including a co-pilot making Beijing roundtrips.

Between mid-December and mid-January, an unusually high number of passengers felt unwell on almost every flight and this included two of my copilots. One was so ill, he sweated profusely and was unable to sit in the co-pilot’s seat on our approach to Beijing airport. In the taxi, on the way to the hotel, he was violently sick and his skin was ashen gray.

On some of those flights, doctors and nurses who tended to the sick believed that the culprit was food poisoning.

The last time he flew as a United Airlines captain was January 18. After that trip Captain Cordle took ill, suffering fatigue and muscle aches for two weeks. He dropped his January 27 Beijing trip, and never flew again. He retired February 3.

It’ll require serotesting to verify that he had COVID-19 on the East Coast long before cases were confirmed there, and we won’t ultimately have records to verify the captain’s belief that he was bringing cases of the viral infection back to the states as far back as December.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. But virologists have determined that the virus in NY and the East Coast came from Italy, not China.

  2. So much we don’t know, and massive interventions in people’s lives and businesses based upon that vacuum of information. Few of the predictions based upon those assumptions — given as hard facts — have turned out to be correct in hindsight.

  3. Highly interested in this. Please do follow up if you find out more on the story, especially positive antibody testing for this pilot.

  4. Starting early February, and for almost 4 weeks, I had a respiratory problem. Lots of dry unproductive hacking coughing, occasional chills, lots of rumbling and wheezing when breathing. 12 days in, with no improvement, my doctor gave me a steroid pack and two prescription pills for my symptoms. It took another 2 weeks to resolve. My husband wanted me to go to the emergency room because my coughing was so severe. It finally resolved, but I now wonder if I had Covid, which was unknown to me at the time. I had been on a cruise end of December and foreign travel (South America) Jan 2-21. Wish I could test to see if that’s what I had.

  5. This exactly supports my post, yesterday, in which I described a Memphis-China pilot (flying cargo) who manifested all Covid-19 symptoms in mid-January, was tested and shown to have a “never before seen viral pneumonia type” with lab results sent to the CDC two times for testing and analysis. Again, this was mid-January. This pilot plays golf with my sister (hence, my knowledge of the details); my sister caught the apparent virus with classic Covid-19 symptoms in early February.

    Start talking to the international pilots and you will find more than a few of these accounts.

  6. Many of my friends and colleagues came down with Covid-19-like symptoms in late December through early February in New York City. Many went to doctors because they became concerned with what they thought was bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. None were diagnosed with the coronavirus, but in hindsight, like Cheryl, above, it seems likely they they were infected.

  7. Ha, so many internet doctors. Nearly everyone has had Covid-like symptoms at some point in their life…it’s called the flu.

  8. Obviously there’s no way of knowing whether anyone with “flu-like symptoms” this winter actually had COVID-19. I travel a lot and had 2 somewhat odd mild sicknesses, but the odds that it was COVID-19 are probably low. Maybe someday I’ll get an antibody test and find out. I will note that there were a large number of Chinese students who returned to USA colleges in January and February and — to my knowledge — none of them brought back the disease. Based on this information, and the lack of a large number of infections in other Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, I suspect that the original Chinese strain wasn’t as infectious as later strains. Maybe someday some scientists can tell us. But for now, the question of who was actually infected this winter is just a parlor game.

  9. I am one of those who believe I may have been exposed to it very early. As soon as testing is available I want to confirm.

    But what I have heard is that Influenza B – which usually comes later in the year – hit the US earlier this year (starting in October). And the flu shot this year did not protect against the Flu B that came along. So I am only like 10-20% confident I actually had COVID and it was actually just Flu B.

    The “sweating profusely” part is the one symptom I keep zeroing in on because that – along with the dry persistnet cough – was mainly what I experienced.

  10. We cruised in very early March as the world was changing. I have had no sense of taste or smell for 3 weeks now. Cruise ships were immaculate and everyone was complying, but wow, airports and planes were total cesspools (and we love flying).
    No resource to figure out how long these symptoms may last. If this it “it” I’m grateful it’s so mild, but I do miss my senses.

  11. I was in NYC 1st week in Oct and then flew to Rome for 2 weeks on Oct 8Th.. came down with fever and felt very tired and had cough.. saw doctor and gave me cough medicine and fever resolved in 2 days but dry cough hung around for 8 days… I am trying to get tested for antibodies as I rarely get sick and want to see if I had covid.

  12. Some have said that one of the reasons that California has done so well is because the virus was actually introduced into the state months ago and a lot of people got it, not knowing what it was. That immunity, when combined with other factors, has California with a tiny fraction of the impact that other states have seen.

    Mind you, this is only a theory; but it is one that I tend to believe.

  13. There is almost no question that SARS-CoV-2 was here well before it was recognized as such. Thousands of people were coming into the US from China, largely through LAX and SFO, every day during the beginning of the pandemic, and many of them were asymptomatic. We don’t even know the true prevalence of the virus in China or the US or what fraction of infected people are asymptomatic, because randomized testing of the general public has not occurred widely.
    This does not mean that the herd immunity hypothesis is correct.

  14. @stogieguy7: unlikely. To achieve herd immunity most people would have to have had the bug. That clearly didn’t happen.

  15. This is worthless to speculate about without antibody testing, which they’re starting this weekend

  16. @Don in ATL they didn’t say all the cases were from Europe. Just that most of the cases were. There is no doubt that it was going around when the government was acting like it wasn’t here. I’m pretty sure I suffered from it in mid-January. At the time I thought it was a really harsh version of the flu, but it definitely knocked me down.

  17. Stanford University is doing a study in the bay area where they are testing a lot of volunteers for antibodies to try to see what the prevalence of these antibodies is. Early stages yet but at least a study is being done.
    Antibody tests are sorely needed and will hopefully be available soon (from what I’ve read in the medical literature not from press conferences!)st

  18. Completely anecdotal. No evidence whatsoever. It’s totally irresponsible to voice such suspicions based on next to nothing. You’re as bad as Trump.

  19. Intelligence agencies started tracking the coronavirus back in November so sure it is possible. As others mentioned, you won’t know until there is a test to show if you’ve had it.

    I had a horrendous cough in mid January. Maybe flu, maybe the virus, maybe something else. No other cold symptoms. Any fever would have been minor, I know I didn’t have anything serious fever wise since that would have been obvious. It would be nice if that was the virus but I have my doubts.

  20. @bhcompy: “This is worthless to speculate about without antibody testing, which they’re starting this weekend”

    Antibody testing (which is the way that anyone here or elsewhere can determine whether they have previously been infected with this virus) has already begun in many places, including Colorado. It is starting to become more widespread into California and other places, but the tests already are being conducted.

  21. @ Scab Seeker:

    yep. Cordle, Vaughn UAL 85 21086, X/X/XX, Fleet Qual $50K, Seniority Suit. [DOB removed -gl]

    scabbed all the way to his 65th birthday! no tears shed for him.

  22. As others have posted, symptoms varied so much in the population. Only definitive test would be antibody test to show you have made antibodies to SARS-COV-2 exposure.
    Loss of taste and smell is a symptom, as are mild fevers, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath(like someone sitting on your chest) body pain. Until testing is done, we can all speculate as to whether we were exposed or not. would be nice to know for sure and relieve some of the anxiety of us “older” folks.

  23. did not mean to diminish severity of this virus with my comments.
    It is here and real. Can wipe out someone without warning ….we have lost a close family member to this virus. Also our children work on front lines fighting for patients lives at hospitals.
    We have cancelled all our flights scheduled up to mid July. Cancelled international trip for June and also a international cruise in July.
    Everyone stay home and be safe and stay healthy..

  24. @Don in ATL

    Perhaps those who’ve determined the virus came to NY and the East oast from Italy are unaware that there’s a United pilot who landed at Dulles after flying from Beijing. It’s not excluded that one of his passengers passed along the virus to others on the East Coast. Yes, it’s not definite that such is the case. But there seems to be a willingness to ignore such anecdotal evidence in favor of credible, easily corroborated explanations. First-rate inquiries require thorough investigations, including looking into anecdotal evidence. Rapidly reached conclusions may be overturned upon more thorough investigations. That’s why determining the causes of airplane crashes can take years.

  25. The fact is no one knows for sure when coronavirus started and when it began spreading. Prof. Giuseppe Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan believes that severe pneumonias in November and December in the Lombardy region where misdiagnosed covid-19 cases. Coronavirus has hit Lombardy harder than any other region in italy. For what it’s worth, Milano and Lombardy have very large populations of Chinese- Italian and Chinese residents.


    Covid-19 is a new disease. Unless doctors are on the lookout for a new disease, it would be very easy to assume patients are suffering from more familiar maladies.

    I returned from Milano and the Lake Como area on November 5. On November 8, I suffered breathing problems that sent me to urgent care and then the hospital with pulse oximeter readings around 90. There, tests and X-rays were declared negative for pneumonia or heart attack. I went home after 4 hours. I’ve never experienced anything like that.

    Coincidence? Most likely. Still, like the United pilot, I definitely want an antibody test when they become available.

  26. Vaughn is always in the leading edge of things. Just like his eagerness to be one of the first to cross the UAL picket line in 1985. He’s a scab and any “story” he tells should come under great scrutiny. I unfortunately have spent hours next to him in a cockpit and can say his honesty is circumspect at best and downright lies.

  27. Everything in life is possible, including that Covid-19 was brought here by aliens to infect the human population to make them tastier.

    But Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is the most likely.

    1) The first documented patients diagnosed with Covid-19 were livestock workers from the Wuhan Seafood Market in early December. 27 out of the first 41 documented cases worked there. After the fact antibody testing has established the first patient they can identify with Covid was hospitalized on November 17th. So there were a few people with this disease in Hubei Province at the end of November, and it spread from there. All you people who think you got Covid-19 in November- you caught the flu (unless you happened to be traveling to Wuhan then and visited the local market).

    2) Hubei is well connected to the rest of China by air, and to many cities across Asia. China only locked down Wuhan and Hubei Province on January 23. The number of official cases in Hubei at that point were 375; the reality was probably up to an order of magnitude higher, due to lack of widespread testing. But even 3000+ cases in a population of 60M meant that your odds of encountering someone who had Covid at that time were low. A good confirmation of this the few number of cases found in locations like Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei once testing ramped up, despite their direct links to Hubei. The logical conclusion is that the virus was not widespread in Hubei prior to January 23rd.

    3) People who got sick flying from Beijing? There was a significant H1N1 outbreak centered in Taiwan in January- there’s a much higher chance that’s what they had. It was a bad flu season, people, and there are always different variations circulating. But the lack of sizable clusters outside of Hubei prior to January point back to the likelihood that this had not spread significantly prior to the lock down.

  28. Here’s something to think about; what’s happening with the 2019-2020 Influenza statistics non CoVID-19? They seem to be relatively low in comparison to previous/historical statistics, how/why so? Perhaps everything is being attributed to CoVID-19? What is the criteria used to determine cause of death? If a physician determines, confirmed/non-confirmed/suspected, they have carte blanche to attribute to CoVID-19. Any other CoD requires confirmation, why not CoVID-19? It would be interesting to get a breakdown of confirmed vs. non-confirmed death rates.

    Just my $0.02

  29. As a retired UA F/A i have been concerned about crew members still flying, especially on the Asia routes.
    If truly interested in knowing whether or not you have recovered from COVID19, you can have an antibody test. It requires a blood sample, finger prick and in LA they have drive-thru locations. This is a good idea so they can TRACK the disease, know more about those that had it and recovered AND use positive results to help with a vaccine.

  30. “One was so ill, he sweated profusely and was unable to sit in the co-pilot’s seat on our approach to Beijing airport. In the taxi, on the way to the hotel, he was violently sick and his skin was ashen gray.”

    The pilot mentioned became sick on the flight TO Beijing. How come the conclusion be he brought the virus from China to the US? According to the quote it should be the other way round isn’t it?

  31. Interesting, I actually flew the flight from PEK to IAD on Jan 18th, I don’’t recall seeing Von in the cockpit. Actually I don’t believe from mid December to mid January he was in China at all. As for my flights to and from China I didn’t recall anyone being sick.. Especially so sick that they were removed from their pilot seat. It would be nice if people did in fact check things out before just publishing. I think it might limit made up stuff.

  32. @Rich Ferguson Nobody cares about you boomers and your strike 40 years ago. Be a man, get over it and stop posting under fake names like everyone doesn’t know its you

  33. A friend of a friend said he was in China in November and was surprised that they were taking temperature checks upon leaving and returning to his hotel. What did they know at that time?

  34. My husband was a cargo pilot at the time in December 2019. He overnighted early Dec in Hong Kong and came home the following day. He arrived sick. He woke up in the middle of the night with pooling sweat, a hey and saying that he couldn’t breathe. I gave him some aspirin and anti inflammatories to help. He had breathing issues for the next 3 days.
    The following week I got sick, sickest I’ve ever been. As soon as they offered Antibody tests in spring 2020 we both took them. We both had the antibodies. So yeah, COVID was in the US before anyone wants to admit. Most cargo and passenger airline pilots all got it early on.

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