A 57-year-old flying instructor died during a circuit flight over Blackpool Airport after suffering cardiac arrest in the air last summer.
According to a newly published safety report about the incident, the pilot he was accompanying didn’t notice his death — or rather, thought the dead man was pulling a prank on him.
The incident occurred on June 29, 2022, when the pilot asked the instructor to accompany him on the flight. Conditions were windy that day and “above (the pilot’s) personal limit to fly on his own,” but the man wanted to record a flight anyway to stay in good standing with his flying club’s requirements, according to the report by the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
The instructor agreed to fit in the short flight after he finished a lesson and later boarded the four-person Piper PA-28 plane.
The pair were talking normally as the pilot taxied to the runway, the report states. The pilot recalls that the last thing he heard the instructor say was “looks good, there is nothing behind you,” just before takeoff.
Shortly after the plane left the runway, the pilot says “the instructor’s head rolled back.”
“The pilot knew the instructor well and thought he was just pretending to take a nap whilst the pilot flew the circuit, so he did not think anything was wrong at this stage,” the report reads.
The pilot proceeded to fly the course as normal but as he turned at one point the instructor “slumped over” so that his head was resting on the pilot’s shoulder.
“The pilot still thought the instructor was just joking with him and continued to fly the approach,” according to the report.
The plane landed safely but even as the pilot was taxiing back, the instructor’s head was still slumped on his shoulder. This was when the pilot clued in that something was wrong.
He alerted the fire crew on the runway and emergency workers at the airport attempted to revive the instructor. Their efforts were unsuccessful.
A post-mortem of the body found that the instructor died from acute cardiac failure and noted that the man had diffuse atheromatous disease, a condition that causes the arteries to be blocked with plaques of cells and lipids.
The instructor also had a history of hypertension and had been taking blood pressure medication since 2002, the report details.
People who spoke to the instructor that morning found that he “was his normal cheerful self and there were no indications that he was feeling unwell.” The three students he had done lessons with earlier in the day also noted he seemed fine.
The instructor had undergone regular medical checkups, as is required of U.K. pilots, which found that his blood pressure levels were within regulations for flying.
However, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority’s medical department observed that the “levels of coronary stenosis seen at postmortem were disqualifying.”
“Had he been symptomatic (angina) and investigated, the CAA would not have certified him without treatment (i.e. stenting or bypass).”
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch concluded in its report that, in this case, the qualified pilot in the cockpit was able to safely land the aircraft after the instructor was incapacitated, but “had this occurred on another flight the outcome could have been different.”
The agency said it is continually reviewing its policies but acknowledges that no “tests or assessment can give a 100% reliable detection of cardiac issues.”
“A balance needs to be struck between minimizing the risk to flight safety and providing fair and reasonable medical assessment of individuals. The rarity of accidents cause by cardiac events in flight suggests this balance is currently about right,” the report found.