Instructor Dies During Flight, Pilot Thought He Was Joking


The U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigations Branch says a flight instructor who died while acting as a safety pilot for another pilot had undetected disqualifying medical conditions. The other pilot thought it was all a joke. The 57-year-old instructor died while accompanying a pilot who wasn’t comfortable flying solo in the windy conditions at Blackpool Airport on June 29, 2022. The pilot needed to make the flight to fulfill obligations to the local flying club but the wind was “above (the pilot’s) personal limit to fly on his own.” The instructor did a flight with a student and then hopped in the right seat of the club-owned Piper Cherokee.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot said he saw the instructor’s head roll back but thought it was a prank. “The pilot knew the instructor well and thought he was just pretending to take a nap whilst the pilot flew the circuit, so he did not think anything was wrong at this stage,” the report reads. At one point the instructor’s head flopped over onto the pilot’s shoulder and the pilot continued to go along with the joke. It was only after he landed that he figured out it was no laughing matter. An autopsy determined the fatal heart attack was caused by multiple blocked arteries and if he’d reported symptoms the diagnosis would have been disqualifying without treatment. He had a current medical but had been treated for high blood pressure for 20 years.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Oh my gosh! Just think how bad that could have been if it had been a 16 year old student driver in Philly. Why, oh why, don’t we require third-class medical exams, and recurrent training, for Drivers-Ed teachers?

  2. Poor guy.

    Was likely afraid of losing his medical by reporting an issue and having it treated. Instead he is dead from something that may have been preventable. I realize this was the UK but it’s probably similar to the US.

    Dead is even worse than losing a medical.

    Better still would be a system that is less adversarial to a pilot with less than perfect health.

    I say this as an AME with over 20 years of experience.

    • Yes. Totally agree. And these are the ‘deadly’ conditions. There are other ones such as depression and other chronic conditions as well.

  3. Don’t assume that the guy ignored symptoms of an impending heart attack. Speaking from experience, I wound up with heart surgery without experiencing any symptoms that would have signaled a problem. I feel for the guy because mine came as a huge surprise with no advance warning as well. There is a blockage known as the “widow maker” that has little advance warning and is almost immediately fatal when it lets go. To William’s point, a more “pilot friendly” approach to medical issues would be very welcome. The Basic Med program is a good step in that direction, but it could still see some improvements.

  4. I agree John. It is entirely possible he was asymptomatic up until the moment he occluded his left main and had a lethal tachydysrhythmia.

    I’m a bit jaded with the FAA medical system though.

    Years ago, before I was an AME, I had a patient who was also a friend and fellow pilot.

    Excellent guy, very skilled pilot. Flew a DC-3 out of KHWD for a wealthy family who turned into a flying RV of all things.

    Anyway he had angina I could NOT get him to work up or get treated as he was afraid he was going to lose his Second Class.

    You know where this story is going…

    Poor bastard dropped dead just like the guy in the article. Only rather than in the air he was on a date with his girlfriend.

    Makes me sad and angry after all these years.

    • That’s tragic. Pilots are afraid to lose their medical because it can take years and lawyers to get it back. There should be a system for temporary/voluntary grounding without losing the certificate, and a streamlined process for getting it back once the medical condition is treated.

  5. Well, who hasn’t pulled that gag of sleeping/dying at least once during their flying career?
    Really glad that he was not solo PIC at the time since he might have quickly shared his incapacitation with others on the ground.