(CNN) A flight instructor died on the plane after suffering a cardiac arrest, but his co-pilot thought he was joking and only realized it after landing on the runway with the man slumped on his shoulder.
According to a recently published safety report on the incident, the pilot believed the instructor was pretending to be asleep when the pair flew a circle over near Blackpool Airport in Lancashire, England, on June 29, 2022.
The qualified pilot had asked the instructor to accompany him aboard the four-person Piper PA-28 for safety reasons in windy conditions, according to the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch report.
Before take-off, the pair spoke normally as the pilot taxied the craft out to the runway, the pilot told the AAIB. He said the instructor’s last words were, “Looking good, there’s nothing behind you.”
Shortly after takeoff the instructor’s head rolled back. As the two pilots knew each other well, the co-pilot believed his mate was “just pretending to take a nap” while completing the round, the report said. As the aircraft turned, the instructor collapsed so that his head rested on the co-pilot’s shoulder, but again the pilot still thought he was being pranked.
After landing safely with the instructor still resting on his shoulder and unresponsive, the pilot realized something was wrong and notified airport emergency services who were unable to revive the instructor.
The instructor, who had nearly 9,000 hours of flying experience, was said to be in good spirits before his final flight.
“People who had spoken to him the morning after the incident said he was his normal cheerful self and there was no indication he was unwell,” the AAIB report said. “The three people who had flown with him for the test lesson immediately before the incident flight said he seemed healthy and nothing abnormal had happened.”
The medical department of the UK Civil Aviation Authority reviewed the incident and the instructor’s medical history and concluded that “from the evidence provided, it is likely that the person suffered a cardiac arrest when the aircraft took off.” He was known to suffer from high blood pressure, but it was within regulatory limits.
The AAIB’s report concludes that although the instructor’s co-pilot on this occasion was qualified and able to land the aircraft safely, the outcome could have been very different.
“No test or assessment can provide a 100% reliable detection of heart problems” and “a balance must be struck between minimizing the risk to flight safety and providing fair and reasonable medical assessment of individuals,” the AAIB says. “The rarity of accidents caused by in-flight cardiac events suggests that this balance is currently about right.”