What Happens If One Pilot is Incapacitated?

What Happens If One Pilot is Incapacitated?

flight Incapacitation

pilot incapacitation


In-flight pilot incapacitation means the loss of one pilot while the second remaining one takes the control of the aircraft alone because modern high-capacity aircraft are designed with the limitation of having a minimum of two operating pilots [ normally a commander and a co-pilot].

Pilot incapacitation is a safety hazard and it is known to have caused accidents under certain conditions.

Furthermore, pilot incapacitation incidents can occur in many forms, ranging from sudden death to a not easily detectable partial loss of function, and have 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 safe culture to professionals in the civil aviation sector and the general readers.


In this article, I am going to answer the question, what happens if a pilot is incapacitated?


What is Pilot Incapacitation?

Pilot incapacitation is defined as “any physiological or psychological state or situation that adversely affects the 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.


Types of Pilot Incapacitation

The two basic types of pilot incapacitation are:

1- Obvious Incapacitation

2- Subtle Incapacitation


What is 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.


What is subtle incapacitation?

Subtle incapacitation is frequently partial 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 member may look well and be conscious, but with his brain only functioning partially. He 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 Pilot Incapacitation

I referred to ICAO Doc 8984 ( Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine ), the document states that two studies of airline pilots were conducted, in 1968 and again in 1988, which involved answering an anonymous survey of over 3,000 airline pilots.

Both studies included questions about whether pilots experienced incapacitation during the flight. In both studies that revealed remarkably consistent results, about 30 percent answered "yes." However, only about 4 percent they considered their inability to be a direct threat to flight safety. 

In both studies the most frequently cited cause of incapacitation was acute gastroenteritis. See this table (ICAO Doc 8984- Table I-3-1).

75% | Uncontrollable bowel action (21%) and “other” gastrointestinal symptoms (54%)

8% | Earache/blocked ear

7% | Faintness/general weakness

6% | Headache, including migraine

4% | Vertigo/disorientation


Furthermore, pilot incapacitation may occur as a result of:


The above mentioned are the most common reasons for pilot incapacitations and, general aviation pilot incapacitation.



While reading the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) research report on 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 another research titled pilot incapacitation occurrences 2010 – 2014 - published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), there have been 23 pilot incapacitation occurrences reported per year on average.

Nearly 75 percent of the pilot 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.


How to Reduce the Number of Pilot Incapacitation Occurrences

Whatever was the causes, a healthy lifestyle may reduce the number of occurrences of pilot incapacitation. This includes avoidance of drugs, moderate consumption of alcohol, adequate rest time, and proper use for recreation, adequate sleep and nutrition, and the avoidance of stress.

Note: A pilot should not operate a flight if he does not feel well.


In-flight Pilot Incapacitation Procedures

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 manages incapacitation incidents.

It is the responsibility of the other pilot to ensure the aircraft is safe flying, then he must hold control immediately.

After that, he must call the senior cabin crew members immediately to get assistance in managing the situation. 


Care of the Incapacitated Pilot

Based on airline safety policy, the senior cabin crew should carry out the following pilot incapacitation procedures (according to aircraft type):

  • Tighten and manually lock the shoulder harness of the incapacitated pilot.
  • Slide the seat fully aft.
  • Recline the seatback.


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

After that, the senior cabin crew must liaise with the other co-pilot on further actions and he should do the following:

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


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




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

In addition, the Incapacitation pilot incident adversely affects the health of a pilot 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 mentions above.


In case of any pilot incapacitation incidents, the remaining pilot must hold control of the aircraft and the senior cabin crew must apply the airline safety procedure related to pilot incapacitation, in the operations manual.


Maged Saeed AL-Hadabi

I’m Instructor / Maged Saeed Al-Hadabi. ​ Air Cargo / IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations / Safety Management System Senior Instructor, Auditor [ Yemen Airways] . Approved IATA DGR/ SMS Instructor by Yemen Civil Aviation Authority. We hope you find Aviation Professional website not only informative, but interesting and helpful as well. Leave your comment , thank you.

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