Why You Have at Least Two Pilots on Your Flight

The skies over the United States have seen two incidents of commercial pilots becoming incapacitated in-flight in just two days.

A United Airlines co-pilot lost consciousness mid-flight this morning, airline officials said, one day after the captain of an American Airlines flight died mid-flight.

“This is the very reason we have two qualified pilots in the cockpit, both trained to exactly the same standards,” said ABC News aviation consultant and airline pilot John Nance.

“The only difference in landing the airplane by yourself is that there are a few things that you’re going to have to reach across the cockpit for — but they’re well within reach,” Nance added “You’re very well trained to be able to do this solo.”


According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the situation is very rare — only nine pilots have died in-flight in the past 20 years.

In one remarkable case in 2009, a 60-year-old Continental Airlines pilot died at the controls three hours into an eight-hour flight from Belgium to Newark, airline officials said at the time.

After a doctor aboard the plane determined the pilot was clinically dead, his body was moved to a crew rest area, according to the airline.

Passengers were not informed of the pilot’s death until the co-pilots landed the plane safely in New Jersey — where several passengers received cell phone calls from friends who told them what had happened. By federal law, flights longer than eight hours are required to have three pilots on board.

“It’s really up to the co-pilot, who is now the acting captain, as to whether or not to tell the passengers everything that’s going on,” Nance said. “It’s really an individual decision.”

According to a 2005 study from Flight Safety Digest based on FAA data, 50 health incidents involving pilots occurred between 1993 and 1998. Thirty-nine of those incidents were classified as incapacitations and 11 were impairments.

These incidents occurred on 47 flights.

Commercial airline pilots are required by the FAA to retire at age 65, and pilots over 40 must get two yearly physicals.

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