"This is ShinyWings 123, I'm not a pilot, the pilot and copilot are unconscious. Help."

Probably a day air traffic controllers dream of with dread, when a member of cabin crew, or even worse, a passenger, calls for help with an incapacitated pilot(s) and a plane full of souls still unaware of the situation.

I'd imagine given the incredible amount of training and experience put into air traffic controllers, this is a situation they prepare for, and have a standard operating procedure prewritten and pre-taught specifically for. What is that procedure?

To keep the question from being overly broad, I'll restrict this to (1) ICAO standard procedures, if one exists for this situation and (2) procedures within the United States and European Union.

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    $\begingroup$ It's also an incredibly rare situation, when compared to other emergencies. I wouldn't be surprised if there are no standard procedures at all. I'm not aware of any, but I'm not an air traffic controller. But I'd guess they spend their abnormal situation training on more common scenarios like fuel emergencies, weather, NORDO, etc. $\endgroup$ – TypeIA Aug 17 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=aqPvVxxIDr0 for an actual event where this happened $\endgroup$ – user1936752 Aug 17 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ This is exceedingly rare. There has never been a case of a non-pilot passenger landing a commercial jet with ATC direction. Even in small GA planes this is exceptionally uncommon. It just doesn't happen except in peoples' daydreams. You might as well wonder what the procedure is when a tour group ends up being the only people left to stop a nuclear power plant meltdown after all the engineers suddenly collapse and die. $\endgroup$ – J... Aug 18 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ @J... or the third shift ends up being the only people left to stop a nuclear power plant meltdown after the second shift goes home and the manager HAS to run a test... $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 18 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ I'm only aware of two cases off-hand where a passenger ever helped fly a jet airliner and, in both cases, the passenger in question was a pilot (in one of the cases, a B-1 Lancer supersonic bomber pilot) and in both cases the passenger worked the radios, read checklists, and did other such right-seat-guy tasks while one of the original flight crew flew the plane after the other flight crew member fell ill. The closest thing I can thing of where both flight crew members became incapacitated was Helios 522, which crashed after both pilots were incapacitated by hypoxia due to depressurization. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 19 at 10:37

There is absolutely nothing "typical" about such a situation, which is also why - as is the case for most abnormal situations and emergencies - there are no detailed and specific standard procedures for dealing with it.

Many ATC units around the world have adopted the general "ASSIST" checklist to deal with abnormal situations. This would likely also be the starting point for handling a situation like the one you describe:

  • Acknowledge: Let the person making the call know that you understand the situation
  • Separate: Provide extra separation to other traffic around the aircraft in question
  • Silence: Stop all unnecessary talk on the radio, switch other aircraft to another frequency, to ensure a good line of communication
  • Inform: Alert colleagues, supervisors, rescue personnel, the airline/flying club, other aircraft in the area etc. as appropriate. Get more people working on coming up with a solution.
  • Support: Help the passenger/cabin crew in any way possible. Maybe the controller has flying experience, maybe someone who was contacted in the previous step does and can step in and help guide the passenger/cabin crew.
  • Time: Try to estimate the possible timeline. Is the aircraft literally falling out of the sky, or is it flying along steadily on autopilot? How much fuel is left? Don't force anyone to make rash decisions if not necessary. Time produces good decisions.

But, again, there is no standard procedure, since such a situation could present itself in countless different ways. There are simply too many variables to come up with a "one size fits all" solution beforehand. Controllers are trained to remain calm under pressure, make good choices and adapt to an ever changing environment. The day we have a set checklist for every single possible emergency situation is the day we can safely retire and let computers take over our jobs.

Further reading on SKYbrary:

Crew Incapacitation: Guidance for Controllers

Guidelines for Dealing with Unusual/Emergency Situations in ATC

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    $\begingroup$ "The day we have a set checklist for every single possible emergency situation is the day we can safely retire and let computers take over our jobs." Very true! But then what would they do to develop ulcers and nervous ticks? :D $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Aug 17 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan once you're done making airplane traffic secure, you could shift your attention to trains. I won't say which country it is, but let's say that many tracks in the one I'm thinking about go by "here's the schedule; follow it, or ram into another train" $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Aug 18 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak that's interesting given that a lot of what we know about safe ways of operating was developed on railways; railway history is a very useful tool for understanding how things can go wrong $\endgroup$ – Chris H Aug 19 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak That does, at least, provide strong incentive for the train in front of you to stay on schedule. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 19 at 10:29

There is no procedure because this NEVER happens. It may happen on small general aviation aircraft, but you asked about commercial flights. Airline pilots are held to very strict medical requirements. You can view them here: https://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/medical_certification/faq/ Airline pilots must maintain a 1st class medical certificate. Commercial pilots must hold a 2nd class medical, and private, sport, and recreational pilots a 3rd class medical.

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  • $\begingroup$ The fact that someone has a class 1 medical does not guarantee they won't get ill or somehow incapacitated during the flight. $\endgroup$ – Bianfable Aug 21 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Bianfable But the odds of two being incapacitated for independent reasons is vanishingly small. If it’s a common reason, it would probably affect passengers as well. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Aug 21 at 21:49

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