Emergency aircraft Pilot failure Redundancy

What happens if a pilot becomes incapacitated?

Tim Takeoff
31.08.2020
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3 minutes

For many decades, a multi-person crew has been required to operate modern commercial flights. However, what happens if a pilot is no longer able to perform his or her task?

At the outset of the jet age, it was quite common to see many crew members in the cockpit. At that time, there was even a flight engineer beside the captain and several co-pilots. The flight engineer monitored the systems to enable the pilots to concentrate on the flight path.

From three-person to two-person cockpit

Nowadays, modern systems replace what used to be the flight engineer. They can even monitor themselves to a great extent. Automatic equipment even goes so far that individual systems can isolate themselves. The reserve functions even activate themselves without the pilots realising such.

Pilots and automatic equipment

However, this does not mean that the cockpit crew is of diminished importance. The professional remit of a pilot is ever increasingly transforming from handcraft to a pure system operator. Pilots need to demonstrate a broad pool of knowledge in all aspects of flying – technology, weather, aerodynamics, aviation law, radio communication and many other fields to boot. Moreover, they need to get to grips with the particular system on ‘their’ specific jet in the so-called Type Rating.

Standard operating procedures

Therefore, each airline has developed standard operating procedures for the various aircraft types, or SOPs for short.

These SOPs envisage what needs to be done both in the phases of normal flying as well as in emergencies. It goes without saying that not all complex emergency scenarios can be covered by standardised procedures. The pilots always confer precisely to ascertain which checklist has to be used.

Redundancy is the watchword

Emergencies are defined as being the absence of ‘redundancy’. If a pilot becomes incapacitated, precisely this scenario may arise (there might not be a spare ‘redundant’ crew member in the cockpit). When it comes to long haul aircraft, there are mostly several pilots on board; on short haul, however, there is mostly only a two person team.

The human factor

Swift assistance on the ground

Air traffic control can organise assistance on the ground at any time. The fire service and ambulance are always close at hand. If anyone on board, regardless of whether this is crew or passengers, requires medical assistance, the aircraft can make an emergency landing at an alternative airport. Coordination takes place meaning that a team of doctors can reach the stricken person as quickly as possible, such as at the gate, on the apron or even directly on the runway.

Should there not be an airport in close proximity with sufficient medical expertise, the pilots can even obtain medical support by satellite telephone. Valuable time on board is used as effectively as possible to ensure safety above the clouds at all times.

by Tim Takeoff

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