Is there anyone on board who can Fly?

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

Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready?

“After eighty knots, we’ll be go-orientated. However, in the event of a decision to reject before V1, I will…..”

This is how pilots start the RTO (rejected take-off) briefing before each and every flight. Most hope to never have to execute this in anger, but it is thoroughly trained during every simulator session. (I have had a few actual RTO’s for technical issues, certainly nothing as dramatic as the severe engine damage suffered by the BA Boeing 777 at Las Vegas yesterday).

While the pilots prepare the cockpit, the cabin crew are also going through a thorough briefing, explaining how passengers should act in an emergency. In essence the most frequent fliers you can find thoroughly brief all the potential emergencies every time they fly.

Yet passengers, whose lives could depend on these briefings mostly tend to ignore the instructions. Just look around and you’ll see them,  burying their noses in newspapers, texting, calling, looking important with their laptops and tablets – completely oblivious to the life saving message directed at them.

By ignoring the safety briefing it almost appears as though they want to prove that this is old hat – “I don’t have to pay attention, I fly so much. Look at me, I know all this stuff..”

Yet, when that emergency does happen, these passengers are usually the very people who react incorrectly and potentially endanger the lives of all on board.

The recent BA2276 passenger evacuation once again showed us how little regard passengers have for the instructions which could save lives.

BA fire4

Bags, trolley cases, you name it – what happened to “leave everything behind”? Why rush? The fact that tons of Jet-A1 could explode seems of no concern.. (Pic: Independent).

Part of the problem is that we have positioned air travel as so safe and so reliable that our passengers are simply not ready or prepared to accept that things could actually go wrong. Once they’re settled on board, their next planned action is to disembark at their destination. Any disruption to that programmed thinking will have a startling effect and result in the improper reactions we’ve once again seen in the Las Vegas incident.

History shows that aircraft fires mostly have catastrophic results – unless the correct procedures are initiated very, very quickly and efficiently.

Pilots and cabin crews are trained to execute these life saving procedures which could effectively ensure a safe outcome. Aviation has learnt from previous disasters.

BritishAirt 28m

British Airtours B732, Manchester, August 1985. 55 out of 130 passengers died. (File pic).


Air Canada DC9 at Toronto, June 1983. 23 of 44 passengers killed. (Pic:

Our passengers have not had this intensive training and thus rely on the crew to keep them out of  harm’s way. They clearly do not realise that this is a two-way contract: I’ll do my part, but you need to do yours as well! The first required step is to be courteous enough to pay attention to the safety briefing. Those last minute calls should have been made before boarding; no spreadsheet is so important that it can’t wait until we’re at cruising altitude; that newspaper is not going anywhere.

Regular flyers may think that they’ve heard it all and would know how to react, but experience and research has shown that when an evacuation is ordered passengers tend to head straight for the door where they boarded, not the one closest to them, or even the safe exit pointed out by the crew. In yesterday’s BA 2276 evacuation the over-wing exits were not used (for obvious reasons) – but identifying the hazards and blocking certain exits is all part of cabin crew training.

After his landing in the Hudson river, the majority of passengers told Captain Sullenberger “If only we had listened to the safety briefing!” Most of those passengers ended up without their life jackets or did not know how to put them on.


Very few passengers have life jackets on. (Pic: Reuters).

Human Factors research has shown that in an emergency situation humans will probably follow their last or most recently rehearsed or executed course of action – if that is not the required action, disaster could follow.

That is why  flight crews brief every phase of flight before they get there – the last rehearsed action. Cabin crew do the same: Before every departure or landing they go through their Silent Review, rehearsing in their mind’s eye their actions in an emergency.

When passengers pause for a moment to consider their behaviour on board, they should bear in mind that cabin crew are safety officers who are responsible for passengers’ safety. While time allows they can serve coffee or tea, but that is not their primary function.

That primary function is to ensure that all on board stay alive – even should it require screaming and shouting at passengers to shake them out of their momentary confusion, shock and disorientation in an emergency evacuation.

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American Airlines Captain Chris Manno’s take on irrational passenger behaviour.

Here is some practical advice to passengers:
Firstly – have the good manners to pay attention to the safety briefing.
Secondly – have your important ID documents on your person.
Finally – leave everything else behind when ordered to evacuate – those things can be replaced, your life cannot.

Crew members should remember why we are there: To safely and comfortably transport passengers to where they want to be. Should delays or emergencies make that impossible, the crew’s duty is to ensure that everyone survives with minimum injury or discomfort.

And don’t worry, someone else will post the pictures on the internet even before the emergency vehicles get there – so you’ll get to see it later!