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Pilot Incapacitation - How to manage such an event?

A modern Airliner Jet is an aircraft designed with a limitation of having a minimum of two operating pilots, normally a Commander and a Co-Pilot. This is in fact an official FCOM limitation as such aircraft are designed as a two crew machine. The loss of one crew member means the loss of redundancy. This is therefore an emergency and would require a diversion and landing at a suitable airport. How rushed you are for the diversion depends on the severity of the emergency. If your crew member has died, there is nothing you can do further medically and so it would not be wise to rush into an approach, however if immediate medical attention could potentially save his/her life, then you start to become time pressurised. Good CRM and regular communication amongst crew are important as they could potentially help sense and diagnose a possible crew performance degradation or incapacitation. Such practises may also gain you valuable time if a crew member was truly going to become unconscious or become medically serious. If this is not the case and you are faced with an incapacitation situation, here is what is involved when it comes to the procedure.

The first thing in every emergency is to ensure the aircraft is safely flying! The remaining pilot will immediately become both pilot flying and monitoring. In the Airbus, we would also press and hold the red instinctive push button on the side-stick for about 45 seconds. This is done to disengage the incapacitated pilot’s side-stick in case he/she collapses and puts undesired pressures on it. Once this has been done, and you are satisfied the aircraft is safely flying, you can put in a ‘Mayday’ call with ATC and request for your initial descent and navigation towards an ideal airport. After this, you can request a cabin crew member to come into the flight deck to attend the incapacitated pilot. They will move his/her seat back away from the controls, secure with seat belt harness, give any necessary First Aid, e.g Oxygen, and further diagnose the situation. In the mean time, other crews in the cabin may also ask to see if there is a Doctor on board who can help. One crew member can stay on the jump seat to remain with the pilot and the rest can start securing the cabin for landing.

As the flying pilot, it is important to stick to your normal SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) to ensure nothing important is missed out during your descent, approach and landing. Choose a suitable airport, get the weather updates, set up the flight computers, brief yourself for the approach and give ATC as much information as you can including the requirement for a medical paramedic team to be ready upon arrival. During the decent, when not occupied with any workload, you can make a quick passenger announcement and ensure to tell them to remain seated after landing so the medical personnel can first attend to the pilot. You can ask the cabin crew member to read any checklists for you if needed however I personally feel (since the autopilot is perfectly working and flying the aircraft), it is much quicker and effective doing it yourself. It only takes a minute to do the approach and landing checklist!

You should not fly the approach too rushed as this could destabilise the approach easily. Stick to flying at the various speed and configuration gates you’re most comfortable with and even consider (if available) doing an auto landing if it means less workload for you. As you start the approach, you can also request a follow me car for guidance on the ground with ATC, as taxing at large airports using ground charts can sometimes be complex! After landing, run through your ’after landing scans‘ as you would do normally, start the APU (you will need electric power after engine shutdown) and do a quick P.A announcement again to remind all passengers to remain seated upon arrival at the designated stand/gate.

This can be a serious event and hopefully if you fly and manage the situation as you have been trained to do, you might just be able to save your colleagues life. The important thing is to manage the aircraft in a way that does not jeopardise the safety of all remaining passengers and crew.

Wishing all Aviators a safe operation,

Captain Faraz | FlightCopilot


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