According to this article, the pilot suffered a heart attack mid-air and a passenger helped in landing the plane safely.

How does commercial airlines prepare themselves for these kind of situations. Do they specifically check if there are any pilots in the passenger manifest and inform the crew and pilots beforehand? Or, do they leave it to the co-pilot to take care of such situations? Or do they fly in a pilot (like mid-air refuel)?

On digging deeper I found that pilot sickness has caused several crashes:

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    $\begingroup$ The article was a bit overblown, as if the passenger saved the day. In reality the flight would have landed safely with the co-pilot in charge. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ Do they fly in a pilot? Only if Heston is available... $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with GdD. The article was more than just a bit overblown. The First Officer is more than qualified to fly that aircraft. I'm pretty sure she was more concerned with simply someone to help work the radios, as the article seems to indicate. Mostly it looks like Gongol is puffing his chest for the article. He did a good job assisting, but that's all he was: an assistant. It wasn't his place to "assess" the skill of the FO. I feel for the FO because she comes across as incompetent, which is apparently not even remotely the case. She was put in a bad situation and she responded very well. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell - you have to worry if they send in Steven Segal $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Freeman I'm not trying to call Gongol out. What he did was brave. However even the AF media has engaged in a bit of sensationalism. I don't think he's claiming to be the savior that the articles try to make him out to be. I do take issue with some of his comments. He's quoted as saying the FO never taxied a 737. 100% untrue as that would have been in her FO training. And I still think it wasn't his place to "assess" her. What exactly would he have done if he found her lacking? She most likely WAS rattled. The most he realistically could have done is what he did: help reduce her workload. CRM. $\endgroup$
    – Shawn
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 17:49

2 Answers 2


do they fly in a pilot (like mid-air refuel)?

No, that isn't really feasible!

See answers to Can a passenger jet be towed to safety if it breaks down in midair?

do they leave it to the co-pilot to take care of such situations?

Yes. In both normal and emergency situations, the co-pilot is able to fly the aircraft, navigate to a nearby airport and land the aircraft without the assistance of the senior pilot.

From Skybrary

Here are some lines of defense:

  • The remaining pilot must assume or maintain control
  • Establish a safe flight profile and engage the autopilot; use all possible automation
  • Obtain cabin crew assistance
  • Inform ATC
  • If on an extended-range twin-engine operations (ETOPS) flight, the remaining pilot or PIC must assess whether to continue the flight, return to the departure airport or divert. The decision is based on:
    • Weather conditions at the destination or alternate
    • Reduction of flight time if diverting
    • Workload involved in single-pilot operation
    • Familiarity with the alternate
    • Condition of the incapacitated pilot
    • Availability of medical assistance
    • Overall safety of the flight
  • Arrange medical assistance upon arrival
  • Brief a cabin crew member to assist if required
  • Complete the approach and landing using the autopilot as much as possible
  • A partially incapacitated pilot should not be allowed to participate in the subsequent operation of the aircraft, as judgment may be impaired
  • After landing, seek immediate medical assistance

See also IFALPA - Pilot Incapacitation

The remaining pilot must first assume command and maintain control of the aircraft. Furthermore the position of essential controls and switches should be checked, and in nearly all cases, use of the autopilot should be made and an emergency be declared. Use of the autopilot and priority of air traffic service are two obvious and effective ways of maintaining a tolerable level of workload.

The second step is to take care of the incapacitated flight crew member. The grounds for this are not entirely humanitarian; if left unattended an incapacitated pilot can become a major problem and in any case is a major distraction to the remaining crew. Thus the incapacitated pilot must be moved out of the range of flight controls. In all cases, the advisability of removing a pilot (perhaps unconscious) from the seat must be dictated by consideration of the phase of the flight, the crew available, and the contours of the flight deck.

Note: Consideration of the restraint and care of an incapacitated pilot dictates that cabin attendants are at least familiar with the operation of harness and seat controls

Finally, and after the incapacitated flight crew member has been taken care of, the remaining flight crew should re-organise the cockpit work and prepare for landing. Details will depend on many variables including such considerations as the type of aircraft being flown, phase of flight, en route and terminal weather, and many others.

How does commercial airlines prepare themselves for these kind of situations.

I imagine that it involves the usual measures

  • make pilots take regular medical tests.
  • make pilots responsible for reporting own or crew illness, fatigue etc.
  • prevent pilots eating the same meals in-flight.
  • write procedures for pilot incapacitation in-flight.
  • train flight crew to perform those procedures
  • review and revise the above based on experience of relevant events.

From what I've read, non-pilot flight-crew are often given very basic training so that they understand the basics of flight. For example Transport Canada requires flight attendants initial training to include a pilot-incapacitation drill, an understanding of aircraft parts including rudder, ailerons etc, principles of flight, etc etc.

Do they specifically check if there are any pilots in the passenger manifest

I believe the airline staff would often be aware of any airline pilots onboard (e.g. dead-heading crew) but not of GA or military pilots flying as normal passengers.

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    $\begingroup$ "In an emergency the co-pilot is able to fly the aircraft".. in all fairness, the co-pilot is able to do all of the above in non-emergency situations. In fact, in a normal airline, co-pilot flies about 50% of the time $\endgroup$
    – Radu094
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Radu094: That's a good point, answer updated accordingly. However in normal circumstances my understanding is the two pilots share the load, which helps during busy times like landing, performing checklists etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ It's actually an airline specific rule that dictates whether or not pilots can eat the same meal, the FAA doesn't require it, so it can vary by airline. $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 16:47

Commercial operations do not normally do anything special to prepare for a pilot becoming sick. If a pilot has any kind of impairing health issue, then they are not supposed to fly at all. One of the purposes of the co-pilot is to be a backup for the pilot in case the pilot has a problem, like being incapacitated due to illness. In some cases small aircraft have crashed because they had only a single pilot who became incapacitated, but this does not happen to commercial flights because they invariably have two pilots on board. Even cargo flights have two pilots.

If both pilots were to become incapacitated, and the flight crew noticed, they would first have to get access to the flight deck and the purser has a code to do that. Then, in all likelihood, they would ask in the cabin if there were any pilots present. They do not know who might be a pilot or not, so they would have to ask. They will need to do this because to simply operate the radios requires knowledge and skill. For example, to talk you have to press a button. If you don't know where that button is located (there are hundreds of buttons in a cockpit), then you cannot talk, even if the radio is on the right frequency. RedGrittyBrick's idea that a steward would operate the aircraft or "help out" or that stewards are trained to operate an aircraft in an emergency is not correct.


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