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Health

Here’s what happens when a pilot dies or gets sick in the cockpit

Airplane
Many people forget that co-pilots are still pilots and more than capable of landing an aircraft. Nicole Mortillaro

It’s a story nightmares are made of: You’re on a flight and your pilot dies or becomes incapacitated.

That happened twice this week.

On Oct. 5, an American Airlines pilot became ill and incapacitated. He later died. On Oct. 6, a pilot of a United Airlines flight passed out.

In both cases the co-pilot landed the plane without incident.

That’s because many people forget: the co-pilot is a fully trained pilot, just the same way the pilot is.

READ MORE: U.S. flight diverted after captain became ill and later died

Of course, that’s not to say that landing a large commercial aircraft isn’t without its challenges. Because commercial aircraft are complicated machines, two pilots are not only handy, but necessary.

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In fact, here at home, Transport Canada’s Canadian Aviation Regulations requires that there be two pilots on commercial aircraft.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything you Need to Know About Airline Travel, told Global News that he’s frustrated that people don’t realize that a co-pilot is still a pilot.

WATCH: American Airlines pilot dies mid-flight

“The main thing to understand here is there’s always a minimum of two fully qualified pilots to fly the plane,” Smith said.

“A lot of people assume the captain flies the plane and the co-pilot is just an assistant. And that’s just not true.”

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That’s not to say that the situation wouldn’t be stressful for the co-pilot — not only is he or she dealing with the fact that sitting in the seat next to him or her is someone who is dead or possibly dying — but the choreography of landing the plane has been disrupted.

“Providing nothing else serious happens, it’s nothing too difficult,” Smith said.

How often has a pilot died while flying in Canada? According to an email to Global News from Transport Canada, never.

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Smith said that it’s likely because pilots are generally in better health than most people: pilots undergo physicals twice a year.

And while the two recent tragedies might give the perception that this sort of thing happens often, Smith said that even though there are thousands of flights every year, that’s just not the case.

“Not so many that crew members will be dropping dead every day,” said Smith.

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