Pilot Thought Instructor Who Died Mid-Flight Was Just Joking: Report

Shortly after takeoff, a pilot flying a light aircraft over the skies of northwest England last June noticed the head of his copilot—a flying instructor he knew well—had rolled back in his chair. The pilot thought his friend was merely pretending to be asleep, even when the instructor slumped over onto the pilot’s shoulder.

The pilot continued the flight and landed as normal. Only when he tried to get the instructor to quit kidding around did the pilot realize the instructor was dead.

According to a report from the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the 57-year-old instructor had suffered a fatal cardiac arrest inside the cockpit but his colleague believed the whole thing was a joke for the entirety of the journey.

Although the pilot was able to safely land the aircraft, the safety report concluded that “had this occurred on another flight the outcome could have been different.” The instructor—who was known to have had a history of high blood pressure and was overweight—had passed a medical four months before the fateful flight.

People who had spoken to the instructor on the morning of his death said he had been “his normal cheerful self and there were no indications that he was feeling unwell.” He had just flown with with three other people for a trial lesson before he climbed into the cockpit of the Piper PA-28 where he died at Blackpool Airport.

The pilot didn’t recall the instructor saying anything after takeoff, the report said, or after his head rolled back in his chair. “The pilot knew the instructor well and thought he was just pretending to take a nap,” the report says, “so he did not think anything was wrong at this stage.” The pilot continued to think nothing was wrong when the “instructor slumped over with his head resting on the pilot’s shoulder. The pilot still thought the instructor was just joking with him and continued to fly the approach.”

After landing, the instructor remained on the pilot’s shoulder. At that point, the pilot realized something was wrong and raised the alarm. “The fire crew and the air ambulance medical crew, who are based at the airport, attempted to revive the instructor but he remained unresponsive and they were unable to save him,” the report says.

Mid-flight cardiac arrest deaths are rare, but not unheard of. In 2017, American Airlines Capt. Michael Johnston died of a heart attack while flying between Boston and Phoenix, prompting an emergency landing.

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