The recent death of a pilot while in flight has seen a flurry of reaction. An American Airlines A320, Flight 550 was en route from Phoenix to Boston, but diverted to Syracuse when the captain became ill. Media reaction ranged from declaring the co-pilot a hero to posing questions about the medical condition of pilots.

So what are the actual chances of a pilot becoming incapacitated? By all accounts the chances are reasonably good – after all, pilots are subject to the normal range of human afflictions, ranging from simple colds to food poisoning and heart attacks. However, while trying to find some stats on incapacitation I could not find any record of pilot incapacitation on a commercial airliner which resulted in an accident. Neither could I find any of a double or simultaneous incapacitation – the chances of which must be so remote as to be negligible.

So I’m afraid that all the Microsoft Sim pilots who are ready for the call to duty when they board a commercial flight may well never receive that call!

In fact, the remote possibility of pilot incapacitation should not be a concern to passengers at all.

Air crew are well trained for such events and either pilot would be able to continue or divert the flight and land safely. In fact, one of our final line checks for new command upgrades is a “solo” flight, where the instructor captain becomes “incapacitated”.

In a real life situation the cabin crew’s role as safety officers also becomes clear. They are well trained in providing emergency first aid. They would also assist in moving the incapacitated pilot’s seat far back and to restrain him/her from interfering with controls. If necessary and if time allows the pilot could even be removed from the cockpit. Cabin crew members are furthermore trained to assist pilots with checklists and radio selection, which would lighten the workload in a single pilot diversion, approach and landing.

However, this rather non-event scenario would obviously not suit Hollywood! In fact, a quick Google search reveals at least ten movies with pilots in distress and some rock-jawed passenger-hero saving the day. Let’s be honest, you have to be at least Charlton Heston or Harrison Ford (or Lauren Holly – remember “Turbulence”?) to pull off such an incredible feat!

Lauren Holly

Lauren Holly in Turbulence.

My particular worst scenes of impossible wishful thinking were in Airport ’77 with Jack Lemmon telling pax in the B747 on the seabed that they’d be OK, as the aircraft is pressurised!

Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon in Airport ’77.

Airport 77

Wishful thinking!

Or what about the rappelling between aircraft in “Air Force One” – only in Hollywood!


C-130 and B747 formo in” Air Force One”.

Now the question a number of people have asked me: Could a non-pilot land a commercial aircraft?

I think it is highly unlikely that it would result in a successful landing – with lots of patter and assistance (provided the radio frequencies are set up correctly) a non-pilot would probably manage to position the aircraft near an airport, using the various automated systems. He or she could possibly even configure it for an autoland, should conditions allow – unfortunately any out of limits situation may well disengage the autopilots. However, manually executing a landing would probably result in severe damage and possible loss of life. Let’s face it, unless you were trained for this, gently placing many of tons of metal onto a very narrow piece of tarmac at speeds of around 250 km/h will take some doing!

Fortunately we do not have to worry about such Hollywood scenarios. Rather enjoy the flight and trust that your pilots are well rested, well fed and healthy!

Featured Pic: Getty Images. Other Pics: Movie Promo Material

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