Tragedy struck the skies on Monday when the pilot of an American Airlines jetliner fell ill and died on a flight from Phoenix to Boston. The co-pilot was forced to take over the Airbus A320 and make an emergency landing in Syracuse.
It’s impossible to separate the pilot’s death from the circumstances surrounding his death, but it’s important that we do so in order to get some perspective on what appears to be a terrifying event that might have put the lives of 147 passengers in mortal danger. Because they were never in any more danger with their pilot than they were without him.
Here’s what I mean: as The Economist astutely observes, an incapacitated pilot rarely, if ever, leads to an accident in the air or on the runway. After all, no plane ever takes off without two capable pilots on board.
Here’s what aviator Patrick Smith wrote on his Ask The Pilot blog after taking issue with the hyperbolic New York Times headline, which originally read “Co-Pilot Lands Jet in Syracuse After Pilot Dies”:
“There are always at least two qualified pilots on board a commercial flight, a captain and first officer, both of whom are able to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, in good weather or bad. The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot, but he or she is not an apprentice or a helping hand. Copilot lands jet in Syracuse? That is hardly anything unusual. First officers perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do. I land my jet all the time — and never once has the New York Times been there to cover it.”
Smith does make sure to stress that the copilot’s workload would have increased significantly without his partner there to help work the instruments or communicate with on the ground. Additionally, the trauma of seeing a colleague pass away in the middle of a flight must have been difficult to overcome, but getting the plane and the passengers on the ground safely is “nothing the average copilot hasn’t executed thousands of times in the course of a career.”