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Pilot Incapacitation is the term used to describe the inability of a pilot, who is part of the operating crew, to carry out their normal duties because of the onset, during flight, of the effects of physiological factors.
Death is the most extreme example of incapacitation, usually as a result of a heart attack, but is not necessarily the most hazardous. Although most recorded deaths of operating pilots in flight have been found to be due to cardiovascular disease, by far the most common cause of flight crew incapacitation is gastroenteritis.
Incapacitation may occur as a result of:
- The effects of Hypoxia (insufficient oxygen) associated with an absence of normal pressurisation system function at altitudes above 10,000 ft.
- Smoke or Fumes associated with an In-Flight Fire or with contamination of the air conditioning system.
- Gastro-intestinal problems such as severe Gastroenteritis potentially attributable to Food Poisoning, or to Food Allergy.
- Being asleep.
- A medical condition such as a heart attack, stroke or seizure, or transient mental abnormality.
- A Bird Strike or other event causing incapacitating physical injury.
- A malicious or hostile act such as assault by an unruly passenger, terrorist action or small arms fire, or possibly malicious targeting of aircraft with high powered lasers by persons on the ground.
Unless the incapacitation occurs on a single pilot operation, incapacitation of one pilot may not be immediately obvious, become only progressively evident, or escape notice altogether until an unexpected absence of response or action occurs.
Clearly, if the single pilot of a small aircraft becomes incapacitated then the safety of the flight is liable to be severely compromised and Loss of Control may result. However, for the two pilot case typical of larger transport aircraft, incapacitation of only one of the pilots is unlikely to present a significant risk given the attention which pilot training, especially for low minima precision approaches, is usually required to give to the implications of single pilot incapacitation.
Loss of Separation may be a secondary effect of total crew incapacitation or side effect of the additional workload imposed upon the remaining crew member(s).
The key to avoiding serious problems from the incapacitation of one pilot in a multi crew aircraft is the availability of appropriate SOPs and recurrent training which includes practice in their use.
Correct control of both the aircraft pressurisation system and, if necessary, use of the emergency oxygen supply will both prevent Hypoxia and protect the crew from the effects of Smoke and Fumes. Therapeutic Oxygen supplies can also alleviate the condition of a crew member or passenger suffering a medical condition. Staggering crew meal times and ensuring that each pilot eats different meals both prior to and during flight, will usually prevent both pilots becoming incapacitated due to Food Poisoning and is currently common practice. Intentional sleep whilst on the flight deck may be relevant on long haul flights but should only take place if an appropriate SOP exists and is followed.
The first indication that a controller might get of total flight crew incapacitation is Loss of Communication. Having tried all means, without success, to contact the aircraft, it is extremely difficult for a controller to ascertain what is happening on an aircraft. If the aircraft autopilot is engaged then it will be likely to follow the flight plan route towards the destination. Conforming with standard loss of communication procedures, military aircraft can be tasked to intercept the aircraft and inspect it visually but there is little that a controller can do other then ensure the safety of surrounding traffic by maintaining separation.
- Loss of Cabin Pressurisation
- Fire in the Air
- Accident and Serious Incident Reports: Crew Incapacitation
- Laser Safety in Navigable Airspace
- Food Poisoning (OGHFA SE)
Accidents & Incidents
Events on the SKYbrary Database which list Incapacitation as a causal factor:
- A139, vicinity Sky Shuttle Heliport Hong Kong China, 2010 (On 3 July 2010, an AW 139 helicopter was climbing through 350 feet over water two minutes after take off when the tail rotor fell off. A transition to autorotation was accomplished and a controlled ditching followed. All on board were rescued, some sustained minor injuries. The failure was attributed entirely to manufacturing defects but no action was taken until two similar accidents had occurred in Qatar (non-fatal) and Brazil (fatal) the following year and two Safety Recommendations had been issued from this Investigation after which a comprehensive review of the manufacturing process resulted in numerous changes monitored by EASA.)
- A306, East Midlands UK, 2011 (On 10 January 2011, an Air Atlanta Icelandic Airbus A300-600 on a scheduled cargo flight made a bounced touchdown at East Midlands and then attempted a go around involving retraction of the thrust reversers after selection out and before they had fully deployed. This prevented one engine from spooling up and, after a tail strike during rotation, the single engine go around was conducted with considerable difficulty at a climb rate only acceptable because of a lack of terrain challenges along the climb out track.)
- A306, Paris CDG France, 1997 (On 30 July 1997, an Airbus A300-600 being operated by Emirates Airline was departing on a scheduled passenger flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle in daylight when, as the aircraft was accelerating at 40 kts during the take off roll, it pitched up and its tail touched the ground violently. The crew abandoned the takeoff and returned to the parking area. The tail of the aircraft was damaged due to the impact with the runway when the plane pitched up.)
- A306, vicinity JFK New York USA, 2001 (On November 12, 2001, an Airbus Industries A300-600 operated by American Airlines crashed into a residential area of Belle Harbour, New York, after take-off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. Shortly after take off, the aircraft encountered mild wake turbulence from a departing Boeing 747-400.)
- A306, vicinity London Gatwick, 2011 (On 12 January 2011, an Airbus A300-600 being operated by Monarch Airlines on a passenger flight from London Gatwick to Chania, Greece experienced activations of the stall protection system after an unintended configuration change shortly after take off but following recovery, the flight continued as intended without further event. There were no abrupt manoeuvres and no injuries to the 347 occupants.)
- A306, vicinity Nagoya Japan, 1994 (On 26 April 1994, the crew of an Airbus A300-600 lost control of their aircraft on final approach to Nagoya and the aircraft crashed within the airport perimeter. The Investigation found that an inadvertent mode selection error had triggered control difficulties which had been ultimately founded on an apparent lack understanding by both pilots of the full nature of the interaction between the systems controlling thrust and pitch on the aircraft type which were not typical of most other contemporary types. It was also concluded that the Captain's delay in taking control from the First Officer had exacerbated the situation.)
- A310, Vienna Austria, 2000 (On 12 July 2000, a Hapag Lloyd Airbus A310 was unable to retract the landing gear normally after take off from Chania for Hannover. The flight was continued towards the intended destination but the selection of an en route diversion due to higher fuel burn was misjudged and useable fuel was completely exhausted just prior to an intended landing at Vienna. The aeroplane sustained significant damage as it touched down unpowered inside the aerodrome perimeter but there were no injuries to the occupants and only minor injuries to a small number of them during the subsequent emergency evacuation.)
- A310, en-route, Florida Keys USA, 2005 (On 6 March 2005, an Airbus A310-300 being operated by Canadian airline Air Transat on a passenger charter flight from Varadero Cuba to Quebec City was in the cruise in daylight VMC at FL350 seventeen minutes after departure and overhead the Florida Keys when the flight crew heard a loud bang and felt some vibration. The aircraft entered a Dutch roll which was eventually controlled in manual flight after a height excursion. During descent for a possible en route diversion, the intensity of the Dutch Roll lessened and then stopped and the crew decided to return to Varadero. It was found during landing there that rudder control inputs were not effective and after taxi in and shutdown at the designated parking position, it was discovered that the aircraft rudder was missing. One of the cabin crew sustained a minor back injury during the event but no others from the 271 occupants were injured.)
- A310, vicinity Moroni Comoros, 2009 (On 29 June 2009, an Airbus A310-300 making a dark-night visual circling approach to Moroni crashed into the sea and was destroyed. The Investigation found that the final impact had occurred with the aircraft stalled and in the absence of appropriate prior recovery actions and that this had been immediately preceded by two separate GWPS 'PULL UP' events. It was concluded that the attempted circling procedure had been highly unstable with the crew's inappropriate actions and inactions probably attributable to their becoming progressively overwhelmed by successive warnings and alerts caused by their poor management of the aircraft's flight path.)
- A310, vicinity Paris Orly France, 1994 (On 24 September 1994, lack of understanding of automatic flight control modes, by the crew of an Airbus A-310, led to a full stall. The aircraft was recovered and subsequently landed without further event at Paris Orly.)
- A318/B738, Nantes France, 2010 (On 25 May 2010 an Air France Airbus A318 making an automatic landing off an ILS Cat 2 approach at Nantes experienced interference with the ILS LOC signal caused by a Boeing 737-800 which was departing from the same runway but early disconnection of the AP removed any risk of un-correctable directional control problems during the landing roll. Both aircraft were operating in accordance with their ATC clearances. Investigation attributed the conflict to the decision of TWR not to instruct the A318 to go around and because of diminished situational awareness.)
- A319 / B744, en-route near Oroville WA USA, 2008 (On 10 January 2008, an Air Canada Airbus A319 en route over the north western USA encountered unexpected sudden wake vortex turbulence from an in trail Boeing 747-400 nearly 11nm ahead to which the pilots who then responded with potentially hazardous flight control inputs which led to reversion to Alternate Control Law and aggravated the external /disturbance to the aircraft trajectory with roll up to 55° and an unintended descent of 1400 feet which with cabin service in progress and sea belt signs off led to cabin service carts hitting the cabin ceiling and several passenger injuries, some serious.)
- See all
"Crew Incapacitation" is not in the list of possible values (Airframe Structural Failure, Significant Systems or Systems Control Failure, Degraded flight instrument display, Uncommanded AP disconnect, AP Status Awareness, Non-normal FBW flight control status, Loss of Engine Power, Flight Management Error, Environmental Factors, Bird or Animal Strike, Aircraft Loading, Malicious Interference, Temporary Control Loss, Extreme Bank, Extreme Pitch, Last Minute Collision Avoidance, Hard landing, Take off Trim Setting, Incorrect Thrust Computed, Unintended transitory terrain contact, Collision Damage, Incorrect Aircraft Configuration, Aerodynamic Stall, Minimum Fuel Call, Flight Envelope Protection Activated, Flight Crew Incapacitation, Aircraft Flight Path Control Error, Runway FOD, Undershoot on Landing) for this property.
- ICAO Doc 8984 "Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine", third edition 2012. Part 1, Chapter 3 concerns Flight Crew Incapacitation.
- Flight Crew Incapacitation, BEA France, Incidents in Air Transport No. 12, Feb 2011
- Diabetes mellitus and its effects on pilot performance and flight safety
- AviAtion LAser exposure seLf-Assessment (ALesA), UK CAA