Pilot Incapacitation | What If One Of The Pilots Become Unconscious or Dies? - Aviation Professional


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Pilot Incapacitation | What If One Of The Pilots Become Unconscious or Dies?

flight crew incapacitated

A modern high capacity aircrafts are designed with limitation of having a minimum of two operating pilots [ normally commander and a co-pilot]. The question is what if one of the pilots become unconscious or dies? 

In aviation, this incident called in-flight pilot incapacitation it means the lose of one pilot while the second remaining one take the control of aircraft alone. In-flight pilot incapacitation is a safety hazard and it is known to have caused accidents under certain conditions.

Furthermore, it can occur in many forms, ranging from sudden death to a not easily detectable partial loss of function, and has occurred in all pilot age groups and during all phases of flight.

I wish all the pilots and the cabin crew continued health and wellness, and I also wish you good health. I just want to promote a safety culture to professionals in the civil aviation sector and to the general readers . 


In this article, I am going to give you an idea about the  in-flight pilot incapacitation procedures and how senior cabin crew managed this emergency medical situation.

I have a lot of great articles, I hope you come back next week to read more new articles

What is In-Flight Pilot Incapacitation?

Inflight pilot incapacitation is defined as “any physiological or psychological state or situation that adversely affects health of a flight crew member and renders him incapable of performing the assigned duties.

Simply, the term “incapacitation” means any reduction in medical fitness to a degree or of a nature that is likely to jeopardize flight safety.

How Many Types of Pilot Incapacitation?

There are two types of pilot incapacitation

1- Obvious Incapacitation

Obvious incapacitation is frequently sudden, usually prolonged and usually results in a complete loss of operating function, Generally will be easily detectable by the remaining flight crew members [ generally will be easily detectable].

Among possible causes of obvious incapacitation are heart disorders, severe brain disorders, Internal bleeding, food poisoning etc.

2- Subtle Incapacitation

Subtle incapacitation is frequently partial in nature and often transient (for periods of seconds or minutes). It presents a significant operational hazard because it is difficult to detect by other crew members and the effects can range from partial loss of functions to complete unconsciousness.

The affected flight crew members may look well and be conscious, but with their brain only functioning partially. They may be unaware of, or incapable of assessing the consequence of their condition.

Among the possible causes of subtle incapacitation might be minor brain seizures, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), other medical disorders, extreme fatigue or preoccupation with personal problems etc.

Causes of Incapacitation

To list the most causes of in-flight pilot capacitation, I  referred to ICAO  Doc 8984 (Table I-3-1) 

1- Uncontrollable bowel actions and gastrointestinal symptoms
2- Earache/blocked ear  [Ent disorders]
3- Faintness [ Syncope] /General Weakness
4- Headache, including migraine
5- Vertigo/ disorientation 

Furthermore,  pilot incapacitation may occur as a result of :
- Hypoxia ( Insufficient Oxygen) 
- Smoke or Fumes ( Fire during flight)
- Bird Strike Accident 
- Hostile act by terrorist or any attack by unruly passenger

While reading the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) research report to medical conditions found between 1975 and 2006,98 pilots incapacitation or medical events has occurred . The majority were due to gastrointestinal illnesses , the most common of which was food poisoning.

In a another research titled pilot incapacitation Occurrences 2010 – 2014 - published by Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), there have been 23 pilot incapacitation occurrences reported per year on average. Nearly 75 per cent of the incapacitation occurrences happened in high capacity air transport operations (about 1 in every 34,000 flights), with the main cause being gastrointestinal illness, followed by laser strikes.

Whatever was the causes, a healthy lifestyle may reduce the number of occurrences of incapacitation. This includes avoidance of drugs, moderate consumption of alcohol, adequate rest time, and its proper use for recreation, adequate sleep and nutrition and the avoidance of stress. A pilot should not operate a flight if he does not feel well.

Managing  Pilot Incapacitation During Flight 

In general, the aircraft must land, after declaring an emergency, as soon as practicable. I will further give you an idea about how the remaining pilot manage this emergency situation .
the other pilot will ensure the aircraft is safety flying then he will hold the control immediately after that he will call the senior cabin crew members immediately for assistance to manage the situation by applying standard safety & health procedures.

Care of the Incapacitated Flight Crew Member

The senior cabin crew should will carry out the following actions, or as it is required by airline safety policy: 

-Tighten and manually lock the shoulder harness of the incapacitated crew member.
- Slide the seat fully aft.
- Recline the seatback. 

These steps are required to remove the incapacitated pilot from the control panels.

After that, senior cabin crew will liaise with the other pilot on further actions and he will do the following:

- First aid.
- Call for medical assistance onboard.
- Removal of the incapacitated crew member from the flight deck, if advisable to prevent injury to the incapacitated crew member and to avoid damage to interference with flight deck controls. 
- Seeking the assistance of a type-qualified pilot on board to replace the incapacitated flight crew. If there is no a type-qualified pilot on board the senior cabin crew will read the checklist for the remaining pilot if required. 

One cabin crew member will stay with the incapacitated pilot until the aircraft has landed. 


The term “incapacitation” means any reduction in medical fitness to a degree or of a nature that is likely to jeopardize flight safety. Inaddtion, Incapacitation pilot adversely affects health of a flight crew member and renders him incapable of performing the assigned duties.

There are two types of pilot incapacitation obvious incapacitation and subtle incapacitation. pilot incapacitation may occur as a result of many causes which mentions above.

In case of any incidents incapacitation of a pilot, the remaining pilot will hold the control of the aircraft and the senior cabin crew will apply the airline safety procedure.

I did my best to explain this subject, I will be happy if you add any information to update this article or by sharing it with your social network.