A Death On The Flight Deck: What Happens Next?


Monday’s unfortunate on-duty death of an American Airlines captain en route to Boston from Phoenix ignited the usual talking-head idiocy on the cable channels. Well, maybe it wasn’t the usual idiocy, but extra-special idiocy in that some thick-headed broadcasters couldn’t seem to grasp that yes, the first officer—demoted to “copilot” by the less sophisticated news writers—can actually land the airplane he’s trained to fly. He or she has, you know, a type rating.

But as I was rising to my own level of idiocy wondering exactly what the protocol is for such events, pixeling into my inbox came an email explaining it all from our favorite Captain X, a training skipper for a major company you know and love. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised that there’s a checklist for this sort of thing; on the other, I was surprised how long it is: at least a dozen action items, plus after-landing tasks, on top of the normal procedures checklist for landings. And yes, the airlines do practice this scenario, rare though it may be.

Some interesting points: The use of autoflight and autoland is recommended, if available. Pilots are encouraged to use Mayday in the call to ATC and state they have a flight crew medical emergency. From there, it’s a logical series of tasks:

  1. Move the sick pilot’s seat away from the flight controls either mechanically or electrically.
  2. Move the seat lever that locks the shoulder straps in place. (Both of the above to prevent lurching toward the flight controls if consciousnessreturns.)
  3. Summon the purser to the cockpit and ask for a PA announcement to ascertain if any medical personnel are on board and if any deadheading crew members are on board.
  4. Ask purser tolocate the aircraft’s medical kit, which contains materials to be used by a physician and also the AED. (The AED or automated external defibrillator can beused with pilot in a cockpit seat.)
  5. Ask the purser to find passengers who are strong enough to remove the sick pilot from the cockpit to be laid on a flat surface if CPR is to be administered.
  6. Fly to the nearest major airport with radar vectors and high-speed approval.
  7. Start the APU.
  8. Stop on the runway—do not taxi to gate—and shut down engines.
  9. Ask for EMTs to be standing by on a parallel taxiway at runway halfway point.
  10. Ask for EMTs to be brought to aircraft in a lift or catering truck that can be raised to entry-door level.
  11. Time permitting, call company to coordinate all of this.
  12. Make a reassuring passenger announcement from the cockpit.
  13. Understand that any death on an aircraft will require law enforcement intervention and substantial delays.

After that, more procedures, including overweight landing inspection if the aircraft was overweight, Customs and Immigration for international flights, refueling and re-dispatch. You can see how such a thing, whether for crew or passengers, is a stress-inducing, delay-causing grind. Yet, says Captain X, “With a declared medical emergency, you will find ATC at their best.Worldwide superb handling.” Indeed.

I did learn one thing from this incident that I probably should have known, but didn’t. The captain had diagnosed heart disease and had had a double bypass procedure. I didn’t realize that a pilot with that kind of medical history could obtain a First Class for airline ops. Not that I have an objection. After all, that’s why we still have two pilots up front.

And a good thing, too. As I was writing this, there was—improbably—a second pilot incapacitation incident on United flight from Houston to San Francisco. This time the first officer briefly lost consciousness and I’m sure the skipper followed the procedures described above, diverting safely to Albuquerque and, thankfully, with a still-alive first officer.

Both incidents show that the carefully considered safety net that has made airline flying so safe worked exactly as intended. So let’s just not think we need more regulations to fix what isn’t broken.

CORRECTION: This blog orginally said an Alaska Airlines first officer passed out while enroute from Seattle to Las Vegas. This appears to be an erroneous report. A United flight from Houston to San Francisco did divert to Albuquerque on Tuesday after the first officer loss consciousness. My apologies for the error.