When a Pilot Dies in Flight

Pilots, Copilots, Heroics and Hyperbole. Will the Media Ever Get it Straight?

Cockpit Segment

October 5, 2015

ON MONDAY, the captain of an American Airlines jet bound from Phoenix to Boston passed away during flight. The first officer took command and landed the Airbus A320 in Syracuse, NY.

This isn’t at all anything I felt like writing about, but the media’s predictable butchering of the story has my frustration meter pegged, and leaves me little choice.

The New York Times coverage was emblematic, describing the incident under the headline of, “Co-Pilot Lands Jet in Syracuse After Pilot Dies.” This is extremely misleading, not to mention insulting to copilots like me, as it implies that copilots are somehow not pilots.

Those of you familiar with my ranting on this topic are free to stop reading. For the rest of you, let’s cue the broken record:

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.

The Times story also states that “If the captain of an airliner has become incapacitated, the first officer is expected to take control of the aircraft.” Well, I should hope so. And he or she would know exactly what to do; first officers are routinely at the controls of their aircraft.

The reason for requiring two or more pilots is not because of scenarios like this one. Commercial flying has always been a team effort, and the main reason for having two pilots is because the business of flying a plane is difficult and often complicated. Contrary to what everybody seems to think, planes do not “fly themselves,” and even a two-pilot cockpit often becomes a surprisingly busy place.

For the copilot in Syracuse, I can imagine it was a bit disorienting to have found himself alone at the controls. Putting aside the trauma of the person sitting next to you suddenly dying, there’s a familiar choreography to a normal, two-pilot operation, and the absence of the captain would have thrown off this choreography and substantially increased the copilot’s workload. In some past cases of pilot death or incapacitation are, the remaining pilot might 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.

Reportage on this latest incident isn’t quite as bad as it was in 2013, after the 63 year-old captain of a United Airlines flight suffered a heart attack en route to Seattle. One prominent media outlet urged calm, reminding readers that copilots, like captains, are in fact “trained pilots.” You don’t say?

In 2009, the captain of a Continental Airlines 777 died during a flight from Brussels to Newark. Because it was long-haul oceanic crossing in which the crew works in shifts, that flight was carrying three pilots — a captain and two first officers. When the plane touched down at Newark, there were two fully rated pilots at the controls — exactly as there would be normally. The mayor of Newark referred to them as a “heroes.”

I don’t mean to downplay the unfortunate fates of the American, Continental, or United captains. But that’s not what this is about. Is there a reason that the New York Times, and for that matter everybody else in media, cannot get things straight? Story after story, year after year, and always it’s the same. The industry needs to revise its style guides or something. I’m not opposed to “captain” and “first officer.” The latter is a little technical sounding, but these are the best options, I think. Even, if you must, “captain” and “copilot.” The problem is when they use “copilot” and “pilot.” Go back to that Times headline for a minute: The copilot landed the plane after the pilot died. Therefore, the copilot is not a pilot. Some will cite the difficulty of coining new terms as an excuse for the media’s bad habits, but this wording is terrible.

When somebody on board falls ill, the crew will communicate with company personnel and medical specialists on the ground, while also soliciting help from doctors, nurses or any other health professionals who happen to be on board. Commercial planes carry a cardiac defibrillator and EEMK (enhanced emergency medical kit). Flight attendants are not paramedic certified, but they do receive limited emergency medical training.

The mandatory retirement age for pilots in the United States was recently increased from age 60 to 65. Pilots over 60 need to meet fairly stringent, twice-yearly medical exams.

Overnight and long-haul flights are in some ways more physiologically demanding, but whether or how this was any factor on Monday, or in the earlier incidents, it’s impossible to know.


Related Stories:




Thanks to James Fallows for linking to this post in his own report on the American Airlines story, which you’re invited to read here.


If you enjoyed this discussion, check out the author’s book.


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61 Responses to “When a Pilot Dies in Flight”
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  1. Edward says:

    By the way, I was always wondering, but never got a straight answer: Are pilots allowed to visit regular doctors or they must be seeing only by aviation medicine physicians?

  2. Fufu Mendugwe says:

    The first thing that popped into my mind was what a great ending to a wonderful career in flight, for that pilot! Just sitting in the sky ….behind a beautiful jet with the earth below and sky in front! A perfect way to go!

    I flew alone first time age 6 (1970’s) ! And in those days always up to the cockpit for a visit…this well into my teens! …even in my 20’s although less welcome by that time!! Saw the aurora borealis from a 747 cockpit SFO to LHR! Another time was in a 737 cockpit from YAO to GOU & MVR..there were no lights lit when we got to Maroua! Had to help look around!

    But the best was at age 11 being sat in the left side cockpit seat of a 727 from I think Dakar to Lisbon over the atlas mountains and on auto pilot, I got to turn the rudder off course ..let go and watch us align back on course. WOW!

    Pilots are pilots..one is just called the captain! The times are just spinning words to make a story interesting! They don’t care about facts!

  3. Pete Arthur says:

    Hi Patrick. Just been reading the bit about seniority in Cockpit Confidential and It made me smile about something that was said recently. A week or so back, I was talking to a mate who is a first officer on one of our budget carriers. We were chatting about about the Captain that died in flight. I asked him what he’d have done if he’d been in the right hand seat. He said ‘Get out the seniority list and see how far above me he was, scratch out his name and move everyone’s number up one place, then contact ATC about getting us on the ground’ I thought he was joking, but now, after reading the bit about number, number, number, I’m not so sure. ????

  4. Rura says:

    the problem is its not easy to sell “normal” headlines. Like “pilot lands plane”… so its dramatised to the Nth degree. Unfortunately it happens in many industries.

  5. Steve MacIntyre says:

    Well, despite its bad coverage of this event, The New York Times did have the good sense to interview you for another piece it ran the other day.

  6. Jonathan Johnson says:

    Seems to me that a headline like “Pilot dies, other pilot lands plane” would be appropriate.

    Why do we never hear of stories where the first officer falls ill and the captain successfully lands the plane? Surely there must be some instances of that out there.

  7. Jim says:

    The only solution I can see is to call both pilots “co-pilot”, which would be accurate and fair.

  8. Jeff Guinn says:

    Patrick: excellent, as usual.

  9. Christopher Gray says:

    I would rather hear about shrapnel, and how fast loss of consciousness really does ensue after the front of a plane breaks off.

  10. Richard says:

    I note that the air traffic controller says “One of the two pilots is unresponsive.”

  11. Marc says:

    This just popped up in my RSS feed, and the first thing I thought was “How will Patrick react?”
    I can hardly wait.

  12. Pete Arthur says:

    No real surprise, newspapers (tabloids in particular) love aircraft incidents. The following is something I dragged of the Internet a couple of years back which typifies the New York Times attitude to death, bearing in mind that at the time, Aids was the big international topic of the day.

    New York Times stories per 1000 deaths: (1988-1989)

    Murder 1.7
    Aids 2.3
    Cancer 0.2
    Plane crashes 138.2

    Carried out by Arnold Bennett, aviation safety stats expert.

    We all know that flying is the safest mode of transport in the world. Yet there are still more people frightened of flying than there are of traveling by rail, ship or of the greatest destroyer of the traveling public, cars.

    Do newspapers feed this fear? I don’t know, but they sure as hell don’t help.

  13. Jerry L Curry says:

    It boggles my mind that the media does not take to trouble to check and print the facts about commercial flying. A co-pilot,ie, first officer is not a trainee.

  14. Brant Taylor says:

    Patrick, is it a given that if one of the cockpit crew dies in flight, the aircraft is landed at the nearest suitable airport? This particular flight was probably 85% of the way to its intended destination. Who has the final say in a matter such as this, and would that decision (or policy) vary airline-to-airline? An unscheduled landing implies something urgent. I don’t mean to diminish in any way that a person died, but what would have been the disadvantage of continuing to Boston in this particular case?

    • Eirik says:

      I was thinking the same. I can only guess, but maybe there is a small hope they could bring him back with the correct medicine/equipment? Or maybe its out of respect? Besides, I imagine its not a pleasant experience for the pilot to keep flying around longer than needed with a dead colleague next to you.

      Many years ago, my family was flying back to Norway from Florida. An older man (passenger) died of heart attack and we had to land on Iceland in a huge snow storm. We were heading to Oslo. We were stuck in the airplane while they took care of business, refueling etc. By the time we were ready to go, we were told the plane had to go to Stockholm instead of Oslo (it was supposed to be Florida-Oslo-Stockholm) since the working time for the crew was way overdue after the stop on Iceland. I would think that stop was very costly for the airline since they had to do a lot of rebooking etc.

    • Jeff Guinn says:

      The First Officer isn’t qualified to declare death. When someone on the airplane appears to be in medical extremis, that constitutes an emergency.

      The correct response to all emergencies is to land at the nearest suitable airport.

  15. Don Beyer says:

    What if anything does a pilot have to have to be a Captain besides the seniority to hold the position?

  16. Ben says:

    This is why planes have two pilots in the cockpit in case something like this happens. Redundancy is one of the most fundamental safety practices in the aviation industry and planes have multiple redundancies besides just having two pilots in the cockpit.

    • Patrick says:

      You’re correct on the point about redundancy, generally speaking, but this is not why there are two pilots. There are two pilots because it takes two pilots to fly the thing. There are some pretty low-workload phases of flight, but there are high-workload moments too. A lone pilot could be easily overwhelmed. Like I always say to people: you’d be very surprised how busy a cockpit sometimes becomes, to the point of task-saturation, in a two-pilot cockpit, even with all of the automation on.

      • Dan says:

        Not a major reason. However, I would suspect that both airlines and Airbus/Boeing would like to get rid of the first officer.

      • Jeff Guinn says:

        What Patrick said.

        There are two distinct mindsets: flying the airplane, and communications/systems management.

        It is very difficult and error prone to swap from one to the other. For example, unless the airplane is in cruise, the flying pilot should *never* be making changes to the FMS. Why?

        Because that is where the road to perdition starts.

  17. James David Walley says:

    Ironically, in the past couple of days, there was a second instance where the F.O. of a United 787 became incapacitated, forcing the flight to divert to Albuquerque. I’m still waiting for Wolf Blitzer to breathlessly report, “Amazingly, the pilot managed to land the plane by himself.”

  18. Tim says:

    Steve Wallace, who led the FAA’s accident-investigations office from 2000 to 2008 was quoted in a Boston news site as saying, “The co-pilot is fully qualified to fly the airplane. It’s rare, but they train for it.”


    By the way, a monkey could do that arithmetic.

    • Craig says:

      I’m pretty sure the context of the quote is missing. I think he was answering a question about whether the plane can be flown with just one pilot and commented that they are fully trained in this, although the situation is rare. But that’s not how the quote reads.

  19. James David Walley says:

    So, by CNN’s logic, shouldn’t you be required to change the name of this column/site to “Ask the Copilot”…?

  20. Tod Davis says:

    Thanks for the article Patrick.
    As soon as the story broke over here i thought of you (hence emailing you).
    I’m still trying to use your website to educate my friends on these things.

  21. Michael Gibbons says:

    The NYT article I see about the incident is headlined “Jet Makes Emergency Landing in Syracuse After Pilot Dies.” Perhaps someone brought the issue to their attention and they updated the story?


  22. David M. says:

    I’m sure some naval captains have died while on a transatlantic or other lengthy voyage. Did the Co-Captain take over, or was it the First Officer?

  23. Martin Sukkel says:

    Media are in the business of attracting attention to their stories. Hyperventilating stories simply attract more attention. Save yourself the irritation. Media will not change.

    • Patrick says:

      It’s not so much the hyperventilating — i.e. making a big deal out of what is, itself, a small story — than it is the misrepresentation and misleading-ness of the way the story is being told. Using accurate terms wouldn’t alter the story’s pull.

      • Craig says:

        I’ve learned that every story I read where I know the subject in depth – or the incident in depth – will have lots of errors.

        The reality is that people who value extreme precision in their communications rarely go into journalism. People who go into journalism are more apt to be people who are more interested in the “gist” of the story. Add to that the pressure of deadlines and numbers of stories reported daily and, well, you’re not going to get good accuracy. Interestingly, the exception is often local volunteer papers, which frequently the unpaid reported strives to get every detail of the town meeting exactly right. In think in those cases the reporter knows she/he will endure in-person complaints from people they know if they get things wrong.

  24. People are so accustomed to having someone “In charge”, the manager, the owner, the boss, that its hard for them to accept that in flying you have two pilots, maybe 3, that are equally qualified, and that in many cases the 2nd or 3rd pilot may have more experience and better skills that the captain. Think of other means of transportation and you’ve got one person “in-charge” the train engineer, the ship captain, vehicle drivers etc. And in other countries, particularly Asia and Latin America they still have a pecking order – how many co-pilots from countries there have let things deteriorate until to late? Avianca running out of fuel near JFK comes to mind, and maybe even Eastern 401 (I have an opinion on that from knowing about the crew and an autocratic captain) Flying is more complex and better accomplished today with more than one qualified pilot – but how you tell the world and media this, other than continuing to hammer it out, I’m not sure.

    Are you writing another book or thinking about doing so?

    • Siegfried says:

      In fact, the captain of a commercial airliner is “in charge”. Meaning he (or she) is the boss on the plane and has the authority and responsibility to make a lot of decisions in normal operations as well as in non-normal operations. You can see him (or her) in a double role as pilot and aircraft manager (this would make the 1st Officer a pilot and co-manager).

      But “in charge” does not necessarily mean “at the controls” when it comes to operating an aircraft.

  25. Marc says:

    Two things – first, I was happy to see that James Fallows, over at The Atlantic, has taken you to heart:

    Second (and of course I’m being facetious here), aren’t all the people who diss the copilot dissing God? “God is my copilot”, after all…

  26. Will Thomas says:

    Calm down; take a deep breath. I know it’s frustrating. ‘Copilot’ seems to be the only ‘co’ word where the two parties aren’t assumed to be equal–coauthor, cochairmen. Unfortunately, from the news perspective, it just makes a better story if the copilot is junior in all respects. I doubt you can change that. Modern news reporting is, after all, at least partly entertainment.

  27. Huy Hoang says:

    Not to mention that a lot of senior FOs have more time in aircraft than the CA does….

  28. Adam says:

    Great piece, I can’t stand the media butchering of aviation news as well. If nothing else, it makes me question everything else they report on. If they screw this up, how bad do the screw everything else up?

    One note, however, is that, while accurate that airmen above 60 require two annual medical exams, the age where that becomes mandatory is actually 40 years old. The way it’s written makes it seem as though it’s only 60-65, but that’s just my $0.02.

    • Rod says:

      Everything I’ve ever had inside knowledge of has been misrepresented one way or another (sometimes grossly) by the media. Why should aviation be any different?

      • Patrick says:

        Maybe, but that doesn’t mean everyone should let it slide. And further to that point: with respect to aviation, am I the only one out there who gets ticked off enough to actually complain about this stuff publicly? It always frustrates me that ALPA, the big pilots union doesn’t get more involved in this stuff. After all, things like this undermine the profession. Don’t they have PR and communications staff who could write letters or make phone calls?

        • James Carlson says:

          It’d be great to see ALPA address these sorts of issues with the news media, but I think they’ve got their hands full right now opposing AOPA’s 3rd class medical reform.

  29. Bill says:

    Speaking of heroics and hyperbole! Here’s a different view of the contributions:

  30. susan says:

    what impressed me the most is that FO had the plane down from cruise to runway in 25 minutes according to the report on avherald.

    agree that the nomenclature gets in the way of people’s understanding the true role in the cockpit. same in my biz-when the “surgeon” and the “assistant” are listed on a case, the “assistant” is doing major parts of the procedure and qualified to do so, but gets little of the credit-and a fraction of the fee

  31. Russ Leighton says:

    I agree with all of that Pat. One thing I mention when trying to explain this to “civilians” is how we “get promoted”. Most don’t know about, nor understand seniority. They assume it’s merit-based and that the Captain is there because he/she is more skilled. Once they understand seniority, they seem to get that we are all equals.

    • John O'D says:

      Seniority is hardly a new concept – it’s how the British navy operated in the eighteenth century.

      They also had a good wheeze then which I’ve often thought could be revived in organisations today. This was the rank of Vice Admiral of the Yellow. Basically an incompetent captain would be promoted to this rank on condition he never set foot on deck again, i.e. he was given an upgraded pension to get rid of him.

      • Orv says:

        It still exists in many companies, too, although it’s been phased out in some in favor of schemes that superficially appear more merit-based.

  32. Patrick,

    Just to add some levity to the thread: the Captain would be the only one to be able to perform weddings in the air, though, right?

  33. J P Gosselin says:

    You’re right on the money!

  34. Ben says:

    A major European news agency was even more insulting: it presented the event saying “still, the co-pilot managed(!!!) to land the plane safely.”


  35. Kathy says:

    For what it’s worth, I thought of you last night when I watched ABC News. After the video report, they cut to an aviation expert who said exactly what you’d want them to: “This is why we have two fully-qualified pilots in the cockpit. Either one of them trained to the same standard.”

  36. Dan Trimm says:


    Great article as always, however, I feel that if you expect the media to change then you will forever be getting angry.

    If the aviation industry wishes to end the media misrepresenting it then the aviation industry must reach out to the public (not just tell those that approach it) and set the record straight. The media will never write a story in a manner that does not maximise sales (either physical or ad revenue generating clicks).

    I suspect this would be extremely difficult – mostly because I believe the only way it can be achieved is by getting rid of titles like ‘Captain’, ‘Co-Pilot’, and ‘First Officer’ – replacing them with ones that reflect the true nature of these roles.

    • David Bunin says:

      I was thinking along the same lines (get rid of the titles), but then what do you replace them with? Left-pilot and right-pilot? Also, pilots themselves won’t be any help since most of us aspire to be a Captain someday, and would resist anything that deletes our golden ring from existence.

      • Patrick says:

        I’ve added a paragraph to the story.

        • RD says:

          I find it interesting that nobody has suggested using the US Air Force terms: Aircraft Commander and Copilot / First Officer.

          I think this terminology makes it clear what the difference between the two positions is (other than company seniority). One of the two pilots has command authority and the other normally does not unless delegated by the commander.

          Who’s ‘flying’ the plane? One or more trained, qualified, licensed pilots depending on workload. There are at least two (and might be more) pilots in the crew. Only one of them is the Aircraft Commander.