Shortly after take-off, a pilot flying a light aircraft over the skies of north-west England last June reported that the head of his co-pilot – a flight instructor he knew well – had rolled back in his chair. The pilot thought his friend was just pretending to be asleep, even as the instructor fell onto the pilot’s shoulder.
The pilot continued the flight and landed as normal. Only when he tried to get the instructor to stop fooling around did the pilot realize that the instructor was dead.
According to a report by Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the 57-year-old instructor had suffered a fatal cardiac arrest inside the cockpit, but his colleague thought it was all a prank for the entire journey.
Although the pilot was able to land the plane safely, the safety report concluded that “had this happened on a different flight, the outcome could have been different”. The instructor – who was known to have high blood pressure and was overweight – had passed his 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 was no indication that he was unwell”. He had just flown with three other people for a trial lesson before climbing into the cockpit of the Piper PA-28 where he died at Blackpool Airport.
The pilot did not recall the instructor saying anything after takeoff, the report said, or after his head rolled back in the seat. “The pilot knew the instructor well and thought he was just pretending to take a nap,” the report said, “so he didn’t think anything was wrong at this stage.” The pilot continued to believe that nothing was wrong when “the instructor fell down 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 stayed on the pilot’s shoulder. At that point the pilot realized something was wrong and raised the alarm. “Fire crews and air ambulance medical crews, which are based at the airport, attempted to revive the instructor, but he was unresponsive and they were unable to save him,” the report said.
Cardiac arrest deaths are rare, but not unheard of. In 2017, American Airlines captain Michael Johnston died of a heart attack while flying between Boston and Phoenix, prompting an emergency landing.