Pilot Whose Instructor Died Mid-Flight Thought He Was ‘Just Pretending’

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When you hear the advice ‘expect the unexpected’, it’s usually a nod towards careful planning and always being prepared. However, life is truly random. At any moment, an event or situation that you couldn’t have even begun to imagine pops up in your life and sticks with you forever.

Unfortunately, a lot of these sort of events are tragedies. Even worse, you might not even recognize it as such at first glance—like what happened to a U.K. pilot during a short flight.

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A Shocking Realisation

A pilot was in for an unimaginable shock during a flying lesson when he thought the instructor accompanying him was pulling a prank… but it turned out to be a far darker situation than he realized.

Two pilots sitting in the cockpit of a plane.
Unsplash / Blake Guidry
Unsplash / Blake Guidry

The incident began when the pilot asked the flying instructor, both unnamed, to join him on a flight as it was rather windy outside, enough so that it was "above [the pilot’s] personal limit to fly on his own." However, he wanted to fly anyway so he could remain in good standing with his flying club’s requirements, thus he asked his instructor to come up with him. All the following details were recorded in a report by the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch..

A Standard Start

The flight was meant to be short (roughly an hour) so the instructor agreed. After finishing a lesson, he boarded the Piper PA-28 plane alongside the pilot.

Red Piper PA-28 Cherokee flying enroute.
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

They chatted normally as the plane taxied to the runway. The last thing the pilot recalls the instructor saying before taking off was "looks good, there is nothing behind you."

With that, they took to the sky. However, it wasn’t long afterwards that tragedy struck without the pilot even knowing.

Extremely Sudden

Shortly after they left the runway, the pilot said he noticed the instructor’s head "rolled back."

An empty airport runway.
Unsplash / Levi Meir Clancy
Unsplash / Levi Meir Clancy

"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.

So he continued flying the charted course. At one point during a turn, the instructor "slumped over" so his head was resting on the pilot’s shoulder. Again, he thought this to be a continuation of the joke.

Upon Descent

"The pilot still thought the instructor was just joking with him and continued to fly the approach."

Piper PA-28-181 Cherokee Archer on final-approach.
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It wasn’t until the plane landed and was taxiing back that the pilot realized something was very wrong, as the instructor had still not moved an inch, having stayed leaning on his shoulder.

He immediately alerted the fire crew on the runway and the emergency crew tried to revive the instructor. Unfortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful as the instructor had passed away.

What Happened?

The post-mortem investigation of the instructor’s body found that the cause of death was acute cardiac failure. There was a note stating he also had diffuse atheromatous disease, which is a condition that causes plaques of cells and lipids to block arteries.

A plastic model of a human heart atop an open textbook.
Unsplash / Robina Weermeijer
Unsplash / Robina Weermeijer

He also had a history of hypertension and had been on blood pressure medication since 2002, which could have played a role given he appears to have passed away during the ascent.

Nothing Out Of The Ordinary

He didn’t seem to be feeling particularly unwell that day, though. The report stated that those who spoke to him that morning said he was "his normal cheerful self and there were no indications that he was feeling unwell."

Propellers of Synergy Aviation Piper PA-28-181 Cherokee Archer 3 / III parked.
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In fact, he’d done lessons with three other students already that day, who all said he seemed fine.

And though he had high blood pressure, his pilot-mandatory regular medical checkups deemed it within regulation levels for flying.

The Signs Weren’t There

Still, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority’s medical department said that the "levels of coronary stenosis seen at postmortem were disqualifying."

A man piloting a plane.
Unsplash / Kristopher Allison
Unsplash / Kristopher Allison

"Had he been symptomatic (angina) and investigated, the CAA would not have certified him without treatment (i.e. stenting or bypass)."

Though it was a tragedy to happen at all, he appears to have passed next to the right pilot, as he was able to safely land the plane on his own. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch stated that "had this occurred on another flight the outcome could have been different."

Is It Enough?

The incident has raised much discussion about whether current testing requirements for evaluating pilot health are adequate, or whether this was a fluke.

A greyscale image of a stethoscope.
Unsplash / Hush Naidoo Jade Photography
Unsplash / Hush Naidoo Jade Photography

After all, as the agency said, no "tests or assessment can give a 100% reliable detection of cardiac issues."

The report also states, "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 caused by cardiac events in flight suggests this balance is currently about right."

By all accounts, it does appear to be a very tragic one-off situation, as nothing could have been done to prevent it. Not the agency, not the instructor, and surely not the pilot he was next to.

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Daniel Mitchell-Benoit

Dan is a content writer with three years of experience under their belt, having mostly covered viral media but now shifting toward spirituality and astrology. He’s a strong believer in using one’s beliefs as a means of self-improvement and being in touch with whatever messages the universe has to offer.

He can’t wait to share his insights with a[…]