An Allegiant Airlines flight made news recently for diverting because one of the pilots had a seizure. While I don’t know any more than anyone else, this is a significant event and a big deal. A pilot who experiences a medical event is, in the FAA’s eyes, a medical emergency. Such is not necessarily the case with a passenger—an airplane, after all, requires a pilot to land, not a passenger.
It’s a rare event that drives a flight to divert with a sick pilot. Most of the time, the pilot can power through the flight and at least make it to the destination. That isn’t to say that to do so is always a great idea, but a diversion usually occurs only in fairly severe cases. My guess is that the pilot who seized did so fairly extensively (early reports are that he walked off the airplane under his own power).
It’s one thing when the captain makes a decision to divert for a medical event in the cockpit, but it’s a very big deal for the first officer (FO) to make the call. After all, the FO basically needs to assume command of the flight for the duration, and that is not a decision that comes easily. Further, the diversion field needs to be considered. The Allegiant flight in question diverted to Gainesville, Florida—a city that doesn’t have a lot of airline service and is not one of Allegiant’s regular cities.
In more than 20 years of airline flying, I can think of only a couple instances in which a flight diverted because of a sick pilot—let alone a diversion that went to an off-line airport. That said, sometimes it becomes clear that the captain is the one who is ill, because the FO may ask that the emergency medical technicians meet the airplane on the runway. The FO won’t be able to taxi easily, if at all, because the only control tiller for the nosewheel is on the captain’s side.
If a fellow pilot is clearly sick, an emergency needs to be declared and a diversion checklist needs to be executed. Passengers and flight attendants need to be alerted as quickly as possible so that the cabin can be prepared. A qualified pilot in the cabin who can come up and help is a huge asset, because the workload can quickly over-saturate the remaining pilot.
ATC can help coordinate EMTs on the ground, and can often contact the company if time is short. If the FO will be landing, and concern about getting to the gate exists, ask for air stairs (if appropriate) so that emergency personnel can board the aircraft on the runway and possibly remove the sick individual.
No diversion is fun, but a diversion for a sick crew member is a new level of stress. Stick to your training, use the checklist, and concentrate on a safe landing first. The rest can wait. It has to.—Chip Wright