In case you haven't noticed, there's more than one pilot in the cockpit of your plane — both of whom are equally capable. Air travel regulations require at least two pilots to be present on most commercial flights, so one will serve as the pilot-in-command (the captain) and the other as the co-pilot (or first officer).
There are good and obvious reasons for this. Airplanes are generally flown by just one pilot at a time, although they assist one another, particularly during takeoff and landing. So the second qualified pilot is, to some extent, a backup in the event that one pilot gets sick, passes out, is accidentally locked out of the cockpit or, worse, dies.
Such circumstances are rare, but do happen. Just this past spring a first officer died during an American Airlines flight's final approach into Albuquerque. Reporting on the incident, CNN noted, "Many of the tasks during final approach in a Boeing 737 can be handled safely by a single crew member, but it would significantly increase the stress and workload for the captain." However, the plane landed safely with no other incident.
Having one pilot incapacitated is an inconvenience but what would happen if both fell ill? Airlines do have procedures designed to prevent such a circumstance from occurring — such as serving the pilot and co-pilot different meals in case one causes food poisoning — but they don't cover all possibilities.
You can take comfort in the fact that it is highly unlikely that both pilots would be incapacitated at the same moment — at least in any situation that was not already catastrophic for other reasons. Nevertheless there have been incidents, such as during a 1999 flight from Stockholm to Malmö, Sweden when a toxic gas leak caused both pilots to don oxygen masks, having nearly passed out. That flight landed safely, but a few years later, in 2005, a drop in cabin pressure incapacitated the crew on a flight from Larnaca, Cyprus to Athens, Greece and left the plane flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed, killing everyone on board. In this instance, fighter jets were scrambled and a flight attendant who had remained conscious entered the cockpit to assist, to no avail.
The common consensus seems to be that the only hope in such dire circumstances is that there is someone on the plane — preferably off-duty airline staff who just happened to be aboard — who could step up. Captain Lim Khoy Hing, who answers flying-related questions at his site Ask Captain Lim, writes: "In this scenario, the purser would have to look for anyone who is a pilot or someone with some flying experience to assist. He has to be very discreet so as not to cause any alarm when requesting for such assistance! Obviously if a qualified pilot is not on board then he would choose someone with a technical background or an ‘average Joe’ with some hours on a Cessna ... rather than one who has absolutely no knowledge about flying."
If that sounds hopeful, let us point out that the flight attendant on the Athens-bound flight actually held a commercial flying license yet was unable to gain control of the airplane. Disappointing news to anyone who might think someone else could easily take the wheel in a pinch.
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