What About Pilots Getting Sick?

I’ve been asked this question regularly; what happens if the pilots get sick while flying the aircraft?

Firstly, pilots are healthy men and women. To get the job – and keep it – pilots must pass an extensive medical every year. This medical is carried out by a well-qualified doctor, and results are passed on to the company that employs the pilot concerned.

If at any time in his/her career a pilot fails this medical, their job is at risk (dependant on seriousness). As always, safety comes first. Simply put, if a doctor believes the pilot is not healthy enough to be in control of an aircraft, he or she will not be allowed to fly.

Having said this, there is always a possibility that a pilot can become sick whilst in control of an aircraft.

Each airline will have its own procedures if this happens, but will be based on the following;

  1. The unaffected pilot will take control of the aircraft immediately (although it’s likely that the autopilot will be in control).
  2. The most senior Flight Attendant will be called into the cockpit by the healthy pilot.
  3. The Flight Attendant will be made aware of the situation.
  4. Any required first aid will be carried out on the sick pilot.
  5. As rules state that there must be two pilots, a diversion to the closest available airport will be requested from Air Traffic Control (ATC).
  6. The Flight Attendant will ask the unaffected pilot if he/she requires any assistance – this may include reading checklists to enable all procedures to be followed correctly. All Flight Attendants are trained in which sections of a checklist to read.
  7. The Flight Attendant will then return to the cabin to communicate with other operating crew, and prepare the cabin for landing.
  8. All Flight Attendants will remain in their own seats for landing.
  9. The unaffected pilot will land the aircraft. It only takes one pilot to land safely.
  10. Medical care will be organised for the sick pilot

As I mentioned, this procedure will be pretty similar for every airline – but there may be small changes.

I’m sure the question on your lips now is what happens if BOTH pilots are affected, and neither can fly the aircraft?

Firstly, there is only a miniscule chance of this happening, and steps are taken to minimise the possibility. For example, all pilots must eat different meals to minimise the risk of food poisoning, leading to illness.

You may now be wondering how we’d know if both pilots had become sick enough to prevent them communicating with the Flight Attendants.

Part of our job is to check up on the pilots approximately every twenty minutes to ensure they are both ok. If we do not get a response from them, we will enter the cockpit immediately by using the emergency code access and follow the emergency procedures.

As I’ve previously mentioned at FlyingFear.net, modern aircraft can pretty much fly automatically – including the landing.

Therefore, if all pilots are incapacitated we are not in danger – although admittedly it is not an ideal situation! Flight Attendants are trained how to use the radio, and we all know the emergency frequency (the same frequency WORLDWIDE). Therefore, in this situation we would immediately get on the radio, tune into this frequency, and talk to ATC.

All other aircraft would be cleared from the area we are occupying as a precaution, and we would be put in contact with a trained pilot to talk us through the actions we should take.

We are NOT trained in how to land the aircraft, but the pilot on the radio would explain what actions to take to enable a safe landing. Please note that the Flight Attendant would not actually land the aircraft, an automatic landing via the autopilot will be used.

In simple terms; in the unlikely event of having two incapacitated pilots, we would still be able to land the aircraft safely.

To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened – but we are trained for the situation just in case…….

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