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A recent incident unfolded as follows:

  1. An aircraft overflew the planned destination and did not respond to radio calls on any frequency.
  2. ATC decided the pilot might be incapacitated and asked another pilot whether he could get close to that aircraft to take a look.
  3. The other pilot did that and observed no reaction to signals such as rocking the wings or extending the landing gear, however the incapacitated pilot was changing the course slightly to maintain separation.
  4. Eventually the pilot resumed radio contact (speaking in a slurred voice) and upon insistence from ATC landed at the closest airport without further incident. All this time ATC was asking the other pilot whether they would still stay in the area, which they did until the landing.

There’s a VASAviation video with the entire radio conversation.

How can the other aircraft help beyond what they already did? Why did ATC want them around after getting in touch with the incapacitated pilot? Despite the aircraft belonging to the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, it’s not like they could provide medical help. What else could have happened after radio contact was restored that would have necessitated some kind of action from the other pilot?

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    $\begingroup$ See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_South_Dakota_Learjet_crash for a similar incident - the reports from the aircraft sent to intercept give an idea of the kind of things ATC were looking for. $\endgroup$ – stripybadger Aug 6 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ Most obviously, what makes you sure the stricken pilot won't suffer a relapse? At ground level, if you were the original Good Samaritan, would you really ask "Are you OK, Buddy?" and if the victim said "Yes. Thanks, and I'll be fine" just walk away? Would you not more likely make sure Mr Vic got to help, whether that was merely the Samaritan's inn or for instance a hospital or police station? Should a pilot do less? Come to that, don't pilots have a legal duty to do that much? $\endgroup$ – Robbie Goodwin Aug 7 at 23:23
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This is speculative and I haven't looked at the links you gave, but I can think of a few things:

  • Having another aircraft there gives ATC a way to gather information that they otherwise couldn't. For example, if the second pilot had observed that the 'incapacitated' pilot was actually awake and alert and there was a second person in the cockpit brandishing a gun, I think it's safe to assume that the response from ATC, law enforcement and the military would have been different.
  • The worst case is that the incapacitated pilot never recovered and simply crashed. In that case the second pilot could give ATC a precise location for rescuers, which could be important in a more remote area. Especially if ATC had no radar coverage.
  • The incapacitated pilot could have recovered but still been disorientated and unable to communicate properly. It's possible that the second pilot could have led them to a nearby airfield. That would still require some understanding and communication between them, and the second pilot might not have been comfortable with doing it, but it's an option.
  • It's possible that the incapacitated pilot recovered but couldn't talk directly with ATC. That could be because they drifted down to an altitude below ATC's radio coverage, or couldn't change frequencies, or whatever. The second pilot could relay calls from ATC in that case, assuming that they could work out which frequency the incapacitated pilot was on. Relaying calls from ATC to another aircraft is fairly common.

I'm sure we could all come up with other ideas, but I think the first point is the most important: when something strange is happening then it's best to gather as much information as possible.

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    $\begingroup$ All good points, especially last one. I've been the 2nd plane pilot myself once. Other plane was flying low in river valley between mountain ranges, which got it out of radio and radar contact with ATC. I relayed for ATC. Was a training flight. Instructor had stroke, student (2nd time behind controls) was flying. He didn't know how to navigate back to take-off airfield, but he recognized the river and knew downstream was another air-field (I was going there too). ATC asked me also to keep a visual on his plane-handling and check if he followed instructions, while they guided him in. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Aug 6 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ Continued... He did a very good job of his first solo landing :-) Ambulance was waiting next to the field. The instructor was rushed to hospital and eventually made full recovery. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Aug 6 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ Having been pilot in an otherwise empty aircraft and having a very big (but drawn out) emergency, I can tell you that knowing that others are routing for you gives you quite a boost. Seeing another plane out there and knowing he or she is there to help, even if there's not much they can do, really helps psychologically. $\endgroup$ – Flynn Aug 6 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Tonny Oh man, well done on the part of the student. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 7 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny Well done all around. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Aug 7 at 18:46
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In the particular incident you are referencing, the incapacitated pilot was delirious with hypoxia. After the spotter confirmed that the pilot was conscious and non-evasive, ATC asked the spotter to remain nearby and try to get the pilot's attention visually while chanting "oxygen oxygen oxygen" over the radio. They understood that in his compromised state, he was more likely to get the message if he could see AND hear something to snap him out of his stupor.

Beyond certain specific actions, (like in this case) there is not much that another aircraft can do to help with medical issues, beyond providing moral support. Sometimes, though, that may be just enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ Speaking of oxygen oxygen oxygen, couldn’t ATC transmit such a message themselves? $\endgroup$ – Roman Odaisky Aug 5 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @RomanOdaisky: Of course, and I think they did a few times. They just thought it might sink in more with another pilot pointing to his face while trying to get the message across. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Holmes Aug 5 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ @RomanOdaisky: SmarterEveryDay did an episode on hypoxia: youtu.be/kUfF2MTnqAw?t=380 You can clearly see that the instructor tells Destin "If you don't get back on oxygen now, you will die!", and gives him instructions what to do (put on the mask, flip the switch). Destin responds laughing "I don't wanna die", but clearly does not understand what is going on, despite the instructor telling him exactly what to do. As Aaron said, maybe ATC was hoping that with verbal instructions and visual cues, the pilot might understand better. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Aug 6 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag This assumes the 2 planes can get close enough that the pilots can see eachother directly - a somewhat risky maneuver, especially if one of them is incapacitated. I guess we're talking about small planes here, but this would likely not be an option for larger ones. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Aug 6 at 13:10
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ATC may have wanted the other plane to keep an eye on them in case they crashed, which could save hours or days of someone else trying to find it again. Such a delay could make a life-or-death difference to someone who survived the initial crash but with serious injuries.

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There was an interesting example of this in the UK perhaps ten years ago. The solo pilot of a small plane lost his sight while in the air, an RAF instructor went up in a Tucano from Linton-on-Ouse and (eventually) guided him to a safe landing. I'm afraid I have no information on whether the pilot flew again.

This is obviously very similar to the example recounted by @Tonny, which suggests that it might be a comparatively common scenario; and they're clear examples of a pilot on the scene being able to assist rather than just report.

Later: found this from November 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/7715345.stm Reports elsewhere suggest that the pilot regained at least part of his eyesight.

Also https://forums.flyer.co.uk/viewtopic.php?p=737791 although I can't get the link to the talkdown recording to work.

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