On 30 September 2018, an Airbus A319 (G-EZGR) being operated by EasyJet on a scheduled domestic passenger flight from London Stansted to Glasgow was under radar control and being positioned onto final approach at destination in day VMC when the First Officer had a flying-related anxiety attack and left the flight deck. A ‘PAN’ was declared to ATC advising that the aircraft was being operated by only one pilot and the flight was completed without further event.
An Investigation was carried out by the UK AAIB. It was noted that the 50 year-old Captain, who had been PM for the flight involved until obliged to take over as the sole pilot remaining in the flight deck, had a total of 13,855 flying hours which included 7,762 hours on type. The First Officer, who had been PF until unexpectedly relinquishing that role and leaving the flight deck had a total of 686 flying hours, all but 174 hours of which were on type. The flight involved was the crew’s second sector of the day.
It was established that the same flight crew as that involved in the investigated event had operated together the previous day from Glasgow to Palma with the First Officer acting as PF for the outbound leg. Just before touchdown on runway 24 at Palma in benign weather conditions at approximately 30 feet agl, a slight change in the wind had “displaced the aircraft towards the runway edge” and the Captain had taken control and flown a go around. After completing the sector following a second approach, the Captain had de-briefed the unexpected go around and stated that the First Officer had “seemed fine” during this debrief and nothing that he had subsequently said had suggested that there could be any “issue”. However, during the return sector back to Glasgow, the Captain recalled that the First Officer had seemed “subdued” and “annoyed with himself” although he had not perceived any consequent “cause for concern”.
The next day, both pilots were rostered to operate from Glasgow to London Stansted. The Captain was PF for an uneventful outbound sector and the First Officer was designated as PF for the return sector back to Glasgow. It appeared that over the course of this flight, the First Officer had “begun to suffer from anxiety”. As the flight was being positioned by radar for an ILS approach to runway 23, again in unexceptional weather conditions, the Captain mentioned the possibility of encountering wind shear and immediately after this had been said, the First Officer “felt unable to continue to operate the aircraft”, left the flight deck and did not return. The Captain took control and decided to continue the approach, declaring a PAN to ATC and advised that the aircraft was being operated by only one pilot. He then asked the Senior Cabin Crew Member (SCCM) to “assist” the First Officer. ATC assisted by minimising flight deck workload to the extent they could and arranged for an ambulance to meet the aircraft. The flight was completed without further event and the attending ambulance crew “concluded that the First Officer had suffered an anxiety attack.”
The First Officer subsequently explained that the wind change and go-around at Palma was the first time he had experienced this in the aircraft and he had found it “frightening” and had “not felt able to make control inputs (to bring the aircraft back) towards the runway centreline whilst in the flare and was afraid the aircraft would touch down at the edge of the runway”. He stated that there had been “several conversations” about the go-around whilst on the ground at Palma and that he had “told the Captain he had felt frightened and had attempted to discuss the event with him”. He also stated that he had told the Captain that “he had not slept well” but “did not feel able to discuss the event further with him (and) felt that some of the Captain’s comments had reinforced his impression that the go-around was a frightening and serious event”.
That night, he stated that he had “continued thinking about the go-around” and had slept for only about four hours. He was aware of the procedures for reporting sick or fatigued but as his report time was not early in the morning, he considered himself fit to fly. However, he stated that he had “felt increasingly nervous during the flights to and from Stansted” and had been “over-thinking” the need to make a good approach at Glasgow, feeling that “it was critical to get his confidence back for a task that he knew he was capable of”. However he considered that “eventually, his emotions and associated physical symptoms had overwhelmed him”.
It was noted that at the time of the event, the First Officer was unaware of the “peer support” and “employee assistance” programmes offered by his employer, although it was found that the introduction of the former in December 2017 had only been a “soft launch” announced to pilots by means of an “Administration Notice” and a “full launch” had only occurred after this externally investigated event.
The Investigation observed that when the First Officer had stopped controlling the aircraft just before touchdown at Palma, obliging the Captain to take over, had created a self-induced feeling of “performance pressure”. It was also noted that “the First Officer’s ability to cope effectively with his emotions would have been reduced by his lack of sleep the night before” and that the two pilots “had different recollections of the interactions between them prior to the co-pilot’s incapacitation”. However, “it was the First Officer’s responsibility not to fly if he was unfit and to advise the Captain if he felt he was becoming unfit at any point during the flights” although it was recognised that “in practice this can be a difficult judgement for pilots to make”.
Finally, it was noted that “experiencing a panic attack does not necessarily preclude someone from holding an aviation medical but, once known, the condition must be declared and adequately controlled”. In this instance, it was found that the First Officer had subsequently been “assessed as fit to return to flying”.
The Final Report of the Investigation was published on 12 September 2019. No Safety Recommendations were made.