Why Do Pilots Collapse Mid-Air So Regularly?

On two successive days this week, two pilots collapsed and died.  

One of them was a friend and a former colleague, and both were much younger.  

One was travelling as a passenger and the other was about to operate a flight.  

My heart goes out to their families for their sudden and unexpected loss.  

Many questions are being asked, and here is an attempt to answer them.  

What if this had happened when they were in the cockpit, and mid-air?  

We have laid down checklists to follow in such cases. The other pilot, with help from the cabin crew, can take care of the plane and the incapacitated pilot, and land immediately.  

Will a young, inexperienced co-pilot be able to land the plane?  

Yes, of course. That’s the first thing they’re trained and tested for.  

Why are pilots more vulnerable?  

Their working hours are odd and ever changing—very early morning today, afternoon tomorrow and then a whole night after that. Nature did not design humans to fly; and more importantly, nature wants us to follow its rhythms in terms of sleep, work and rest.  

Many people work around the clock. Why do only pilots collapse?  

No job is small, but some are more demanding, less forgiving, and involve human lives. That adds to the stress of the job.

I have often worked 9 to 5—night 9 to morning 5—and it’s not easy.  

Now try doing it two nights in a row with ‘adequate’, which is the minimum mandated, rest in between.  

Regulations, called Flight Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) exist, and are strictly enforced, but nature does not always obey humans, exactly like humans don’t obey nature.  

Your body does not react to your commands like a switch putting the light off or on, and you cannot fall asleep whenever you want, just because you must.  

photograph of a woman touching her face

But why does it happen only to pilots?  

These days we hear of many youngsters just collapsing and passing away. Apart from the increased pollution, in food, water, and air, some cases happen because of extremes, either too much physical effort, or almost none.

The human body can only take so much and no more.  

In pilots, the effects show up, especially with age, but they’re slow and subtle, so often get ignored, till something major happens. Please see this post for pilots’ stressors.

Will a passenger be able to land a plane, with guidance from experts on the ground?  

Highly unlikely. For details, please see this post.

Will the Autopilot be able to land the plane?  

Possible, but autopilots have to be prepared for a landing. That, only a trained pilot can do.  

Pilots need training, salaries, rest, leave, food, and comfortable cockpits. And they fall sick at short notice. Autopilots need nothing other than electric power and computers. Naturally, replacing pilots with autopilots is tempting because that translates into higher profits.  

With increased reliability, there are plans to fly planes with a single pilot, and even without any pilot on board.

It could be possible, but not yet.  

Can the plane be remotely piloted?  

Yes, but even that pilot would be working odd hours!  

What’s the solution then?  

Having been a pilot, both in the military and in airlines, for 43 years, I have a personal slogan about this job.

The acronym is DESH.  

Pilots should be:
Safe, and

Disciplined, efficient and safe they already are, because they won’t last long in this job without that. But making them happy requires corporate and regulatory effort.  

In the olden days, when the only airlines were Sarkari, (Government owned) and overly unionised, their employees, who resorted to strikes and coercion, were seen as pampered, underworked and overpaid.  

Things are quite the opposite now.  

And that needs to change, before it leads to a disaster.  

What we need is a midway between the two extremes, so that our desh (country) can fly into progress and prosperity with pilots who are DESH.  

©Avinash Chikte                

This article was first published on indiatimes.com at https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/why-do-pilots-collapse-mid-air-so-regularly-612405.html

Sleepless photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com


2 thoughts on “Why Do Pilots Collapse Mid-Air So Regularly?”

  1. Kiran Pendharkar

    Very informative; during one of my trips to US , while taking a domestic flight we were told that the pilot had refused to fly as the flight was delayed for some reason and his duty hours had finished by then. I wonder if such things are acceptable in india?

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