When a Pilot Dies in Flight

Photo by the author.

ONCE IN A WHILE IT HAPPENS. In 2009, the captain of a Continental Airlines 777 flying from Brussels to Newark passed away during flight. And on September 26th, 63 year-old Henry Skillern, captain of a United Airlines flight bound for Seattle suffered a heart attack. In both cases, the first officer — i.e. the copilot — assumed command. The United captain died shortly after an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho.

And in both cases, much was made of the idea of a copilot having to take over and land on his own. Unfortunately, the press and media, along with most of the flying public, seem to have little grasp of what a copilot’s job actually entails.

As I’ve written multiple times in my previous posts and articles, and as discussed in chapter four of my book, copilots are not apprentices. All commercial jets require a minimum of two pilots — a captain and first officer. The latter is known colloquially as the copilot, but both individuals are full-fledged pilots, trained and qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight. The captain is in command, and takes home a fatter paycheck, but the hands-on flying duties are shared or more less equally. Copilots perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, in both good and bad weather.

Granted it’s extremely unusual, and perhaps a bit disorienting, for a copilot to find himself alone at the controls. There’s a familiar choreography to a normal, two-pilot operation, and the absence of either pilot will throw off this choreography and substantially increase the workload for the other, remaining pilot. This is why, rare as such scenarios are, the remaining pilot is likely to ask for assistance from an off-duty colleague in the cabin, or even from a flight attendant. While not a necessity, it’s a good idea to have a second person on hand to help with radio communications, the reading of checklists, or the manipulation of certain switches or controls (deploying the landing gear, setting flaps, etc.). However, while the workload might be higher and the routines out of synch, the tasks themselves, including the landing, are nothing the average copilot hasn’t executed thousands of times in the course of a career.

Be wary of what you see and read. On the heels of the United incident, one prominent media outlet urged calm, reminding readers that copilots, like captains, are in fact “trained pilots.” You don’t say?

It was even worse after the Continental incident in 2009, “That’s what copilots are for,” said an editor at Flight International magazine. “To stand in for the pilot in case of emergency.” Really? It’s possible this comment was taken out of context, but I had never in my life read a more ignorant and misleading characterization of a copilot’s duties and responsibilities.

If I seem unreasonably touchy, maybe that’s because I’m a copilot myself.

At an airline, tenure is everything, and a copilot advances from copilot to captain — we call it “upgrading” — not by virtue of skill or talent, but by virtue of date-of-hire seniority. The seniority system dictates that all pilots be hired initially as copilots, regardless of how much captain time you may have accrued at a past employer. Pilots then submit standing bids for position (captain or first officer), aircraft type and base city. When a captain’s slot opens up somewhere, it is filled by the most senior copilot who has bid for it. Thus that senior copilot now becomes a junior captain.

How long does it typically take to upgrade? It varies tremendously airline to airline, based on company expansion (or contraction), retirement attrition and the subsequent hiring cycles. Such cycles are impossible to predict over the long term: one airline is expanding while another is shrinking; five years down the road it’s the other way around. An upgrade might take three years, five years, fifteen yearsโ€ฆ who the heck knows. I’m in my 12th year with my employer. It’s a job I love dearly, but I’m not remotely close to holding a captain’s position on any aircraft.

How long it takes also depends on whether or not a pilot wants to accept a captain’s slot right away. A junior captain typically earns more money than a senior copilot, but salary is only one aspect of the job. Because overall quality of life — the base you’re assigned to, the plane you fly, your monthly schedule and so forth — is often better as a top-of-the-list copilot than as a bottom-feeder captain, many copilots will bypass an upgrade until their overall seniority allows for better standing. A choice: would you prefer to be a senior copilot flying 747s to Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro, with layovers in five-star hotels and 18 days off each month, or a low-rung captain flying 737s on multiple legs each day to places like Kansas City and Nashville, with ten-hour layovers at the airport Holiday Inn? You’ll probably have a better income as the junior captain, but logistically this a much more challenging job — tougher schedules, more time away from home — and not everybody wants it.

I know several pilots who could hold captain positions, but choose not to because of the potential impact on their lifestyle and schedules. And thus it’s not terribly unusual for a copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.

Where you won’t find a lot of bypassing, however, is at the regional carriers — those myriad “express” and “connection” contractors that fly on behalf of the majors. Copilot wages tend to be ridiculously low at these companies, and upgrades are coveted. Plus, having captain’s time on your resume is very valuable when it comes time to applying at a major. (And if you get hired, it’s back to being a junior copilot again, albeit at substantially better pay than any regional has to offer.)

Copilots are the ones with three stripes on their cuffs and epaulets. Captains wear four. In the cockpit, the copilot sits in the right seat; the captain on the left.

Long-haul flights carry augmented crews that work in shifts. You might see a captain and two first officers, a captain and three first officers, or two captains and two first officers. It differs airline to airline, as well as with the length of flight. Throw in a line check or other training exercise, and there can be as many as five pilots, in on the flight deck, in any combination of rank.


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27 Responses to “When a Pilot Dies in Flight”
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  1. Bill Viets says:

    Between the two, who gets first dibs on a newly-hired flight attendant?

  2. Bill says:

    Regarding your discussion of “Captains” vs “First Officers,” I’m wondering if you’d be willing to clarify something. How does the “chain of command” work when there are multiple pilots working in shifts in a long-haul flight? Is there one “Captain” who is in ultimate command of the plane even if he is on break, or is the “commander” the senior of the two pilots who are on duty? If there is one “Captain,” is any distinction made between the two “First Officers” who may be on-duty while the captain is on break (i.e. what would be called an “Officer of the Deck” on a ship)?

  3. John Cavilia says:

    My wife and I were on that Brussels-Newark flight in 2009. The passengers were told nothing in flight, though we heard a couple of pa calls for a doctor, and in retrospect we realized that the cabin crew got very quiet halfway over. The plane was met by police cars and an ambulance, but I only learned what had happened by talking to reporters in the airport.

    A local TV news person tracked us down at home hours later, and in our taped interview that aired later I think they wanted us to say we were scared, or thought we should have been told, or something. But I told them I knew what Patrick says above: There are always at least two fully qualified pilots — three on long overwater segments — and I would have known there was no danger. I know some passengers would have been alarmed, and the first officer did the right thing in deciding not to say anything.

  4. Heywood Jablome says:

    Don’t forget the Comtinental Flight in 2007 a 757 flying from Houston-Puerto Vallarta. The Captain suffered a heart attack a died in flight and the plane diverted to McAllen, Tx. The Captain was going through UOE (upgrade operational evaluation) and the First Officer was actually the Senior Continental Check Airman evaluating the new Captain. I guess the moral of the story is: if you want to upgrade quickly, become a FO at Continental (United).

  5. John Eustace says:

    I saw it reported that the captain who sadly died after suffering a heart attack in flight weighed 145kg. Is it even possible that a 62 year old pilot weighing that much could be passed fit to fly?

  6. Heatblizzard says:

    What’s to be pissed about? You just said yourself at the top of you’re article that co pilots are there for emergencies because you can’t just have one person in charge.

    You need to let things go. The media is full of yellow journalism on both ends.

    • Bill says:

      I think the issue was the implication that the ONLY purpose a co-pilot serves is as a back-up to the Captain. Flying a plane (according to him — and I believe him), is a two-person job. Either pilot is capable of doing both jobs if one of them becomes incapacitated, but normally you need both.

      I think the other issue is that if it’s the co-pilot, rather than the Captain, who suddenly becomes incapacitated, you have essentially the same problem: one person doing a two-person job. The co-pilot isn’t a spare part; he is essential to the safe operation of the aircraft.

      I once had a flight that was canceled due to “mechanical difficulties.” I put that phrase in quotes because before the announcement I had overheard the crew discussing the matter: The issue wasn’t mechanical; the problem was the co-pilot hadn’t shown up.

  7. Michael Castens says:

    Blue Island Airways (Guernsey) claim that: “the primary role of the second pilot was to assume control in the event of incapacity of the first pilot (captain/commander).” Presumably their First Officers weren’t too impressed when they read this.


  8. Vinnie Prim says:

    You glossed over it but it is well worth emphasizing that it is usual (not all airlines, not all countries) that the Captain and First Officer (co-pilot) alternate every segment of the flight or their time together the responsibility for flying the plane and the other the communications. This gives them equal PIC time and experience.

  9. David Golson says:

    Enjoyed the post. I always like like to know what goes on behind the cockpit doors.

  10. Bruce Adams says:

    Are the cockpits arranged to permit flight with one pilot? Are some of the instruments and controls located on the left side for the pilot? How do you handle physical security? Do you leave the cockpit door open for medical personnel? What happens if there is a missed approach?

    (Unfortunately, I am not a pilot. At age 72, all I fly is a RC helo, but I read your articles when they are available.)



  11. Ross Aimer says:


    Don’t forget to mention that if the deceased pilot is the Captain, the first thing that the F/O does is to cross his/her name off the the seniority list and yell “GET THIS SOB OUT OF MY SEAT!” ๐Ÿ™‚

    Capt. Ross Aimer
    (UAL Ret.)

  12. david strickland says:

    Missing from the accounts of this recent incident is how did the passenger let the ground know of the emergency and how did the ground experts communicate with him. Just grabbing a mike and starting to babble into it is not going to automatically raise help on the ground. Or is it?

    We’ve all seen the movie “Airplane” but the magic moment between death or incapacity is shrouded on mystery. How would I, say as a passenger in the right seat of a Piper Aztec or similar, in which I have flown frequently as an island hopper, know what to do in this situation?

  13. NB says:

    Talking about experience and seniority, as I understand it, after the Asiana crash at SFO, all foreign airlines are limited in the way they land there, whereas all US airlines can still operate as normal. It strikes me that senior pilots at, for example, Lufthansa or British Airways will have far more experience than many at regional US carriers. Am I missing something, or is this some form of protectionism going on?

  14. Steven M says:

    Thanks for the thorough explanation! One question: does anybody wear a uniform with just one or two stripes?

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, at some carriers outside the U.S., junior first officers will wear two stripes. This is unusual though.

      • Dezza says:

        The pilots who wear 2 stripes in airlines are called Second Officers. Here at Qantas, we use them. International airlines use them to help facilitate crew rest on long-haul flights – 15hrs SYD-DFW. They are not permitted to occupy a seat at the controls below 10,000 feet altitude.

        • Patrick says:

          I think Cathay Pacific might have a similar system. Sounds like a boring job.

          Here in the U.S., second officer used to be the term for the flight engineer.

          United was one airline that had a designated relief pilot that they called an “IRO,” who, as I understand it, worked only mid-flight relief on long-haul flights. This pilot was still technically a first officer, however.

          Nowadays, pilots assigned to relief are full first officers. Whether you fly only relief on a given flight, or occupy a control seat for takeoff or landing, varies trip to trip. Sometimes it’s determined by currency — i.e. which copilot is more in need of a landing. Other times you just flip a coin.


          • Ross Aimer says:

            United’s IRO or IRP (International Relief Officer/Pilot) was one step above the F/O bid. (Small pay override.)
            They were qualified to fly in all three seats in the “Rope Start” 747 or SP during cruise and if needed in F/O or F/E seats for T/O and landings.

          • Rajesh Mathur says:

            yes Patrick, Cathay has this system.

        • Jim says:

          If Second Officers can only occupy a seat at the controls above 10,000 feet, does this mean they are allowed to takeoff and land at El Alto International Airport (13,323 ft)? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Tony Wade says:

        Hello the Stripes or Epaulettes regime is a follows.
        Captain……Four stripes.
        Senior First Officer or on older aircraft a Flight Engineer…….Three stripes.
        First Officer……Two stripes.
        Second Officers or sometimes called Cruise Pilots or Load masters on some cargo airlines…….One stripe.

        On really older aircraft a Navigator and or Radio operator may be carried and can have between one and three stripes.

    • Eric Rush says:

      Long, long ago, flight engineers were mechanics. Such professional engineers were not necessarily pilots, and they wore two stripes.

      • Ross Aimer says:

        The professional Flight Engineers (none pilots) wore 3 stripes with a red outline around the gold or silver stripes!
        Only some new Second Officers or “Cruise Pilots” in some airlines wore two stripes.
        Again, depending on the airline some Navigators wore 3, others wore two stripes.
        A few airlines added a gold star on top of the four gold stripe for the internationally qualified Captains.
        Some foreign airlines added a small circle on top of the 4th stripe like a Navy Captain.

  15. Tod Davis says:

    Weren’t the five pilots on board QF32 when it had it’s uncontained engine explosion out of Singapore?