Off-Duty Pilot Saves Flight When Captain Takes Ill

Off-Duty Pilot Saves Flight When Captain Takes Ill

( – Passengers on a Southwest flight had a narrow escape last week after the plane’s captain suddenly fell ill in flight. Luckily, an off-duty pilot from another airline was on board. Working with the plane’s own crew, they helped bring it safely back to the ground.

At 6:33 a.m. on March 22, Southwest Airlines Flight 6013 took off from Las Vegas, bound for Columbus, Ohio. However, the Boeing 737 hadn’t been in the air long when the crew called Air Traffic Control to report an emergency. The plane’s captain had suddenly developed stomach pains, then fainted. A crew member asked passengers if there were any medical personnel on the plane, and a nurse stepped up to help care for the sick pilot. The crew reported that to Las Vegas and added, “We need to get him on an ambulance immediately.” That meant turning the plane and returning to Harry Reid International Airport — without the captain on the flight deck.

US airliners always have two qualified pilots in the crew, but if one of them becomes completely incapacitated the workload is a lot for the remaining one to handle. Flight 6013 had another stroke of luck, though. The plane didn’t just have a nurse on board; there was also an off-duty pilot among its passengers, and like the medic, they volunteered their services. The flier headed for the flight deck and took charge of the radios, leaving the copilot free to concentrate on bringing the plane down safely.

Air safety consultant and former pilot Ross Aimer told journalists that incidents like this are rare, because commercial pilots have medical checkups every six months that usually catch any health issues before they get to the point where they can cause an in-flight emergency. If it does happen, he said, both the captain and first officer are fully qualified and can handle the plane alone — but having another pilot on board was “icing on the cake.”

In this case, the crew and their unexpected helper managed to cope so well that passengers didn’t realize the sick man was the captain until after the plane was back on the ground.

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