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It’s November 2019, and passengers on board a commercial airplane are relaxing at around 33,000 feet. But the situation in the cockpit is by no means as calm – the pilot has fallen very ill at the controls. With his condition worsening, the crew make some frantic attempts to help him and get control of the flight.

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For many people, air travel is one of the most reliable forms of transport out there today. Indeed, thanks to airplanes you can reach many of the major countries around the world within a matter of hours, barring any delays. Unfortunately, though, not every flight goes as smoothly as it should.

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The passengers on board the previously mentioned plane could certainly attest to that, as their journey took a terrifying turn. The aircraft took off from Moscow, Russia, on the morning of November 24, 2019. It was scheduled to reach the coastal town of Anapa over two hours later, with the pilot watching over the controls.

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In the initial stages, all appeared to be well on the 150-seater Aeroflot aircraft. But that sense of calm was soon shattered. The pilot’s major health scare sparked scenes of panic amongst the crew. And from there, some big decisions needed to be made at more than 30,000 feet in the air.

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When it comes to travel, we all have our favored modes of transport. Some of us prefer to drive to our desired location, while others might opt to take the train instead. Yet if our journey is set to span hundreds or thousands of miles, an airplane is probably the go-to option.

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However, for people who have a fear of flying, that’s not always the easiest choice to make. After all, the anxieties surrounding air travel can be very hard to shake, regardless of how safe most planes are today. And those concerns would no doubt have been strengthened following some high profile incidents down the years.

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For instance, a terrible accident occurred in England back in the summer of 1972, when a plane left Heathrow airport. The aircraft was piloted by a man named Stanley Key, who was 52 years of age at the time. The flight took off as normal, with close to 120 passengers on board.

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Within a couple of minutes, though, tragedy struck. It’s believed that Key got into a verbal altercation with some of his workmates, before suffering a heart attack in the cockpit. As a result of that, he then collapsed on top of the plane’s controls, which led to the aircraft stalling.

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From that point, the plane went on to crash just outside of Staines, England. And sadly, none of the passengers survived the wreck. There’s no doubting that it had been a truly horrendous accident. But sadly, it wasn’t the last time that a pilot fell ill during their flight.

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Over 20 years on from that disaster, another pilot named Roger Attenborough was in charge of a commercial flight from England to Spain. The Britannia Airways plane left London Luton Airport in the afternoon of January 28, 1996. From there, the journey continued without incident until Attenborough approached his final destination.

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As the plane got ever closer to the Spanish airport, Attenborough started his descent from the sky. And eventually, he reached about 12,000 feet. But after that, the 54-year-old experienced a heart attack. Unlike what happened in 1972, though, this man’s alarming medical ailment didn’t lead to a tragic crash.

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You see, the aircraft was in its “descent phase,” so Attenborough and his co-pilot were strapped into harnesses. Due to that, the pilot was held in his seat when he suffered the heart attack, staying away from the controls. In the end, the co-pilot had to land the plane while his colleague remained motionless beside him.

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Incredibly, the vast majority of the 229 individuals aboard didn’t even know there was a problem until they arrived on the runway. At that stage, Attenborough was removed from the harness and a medical team tried to revive him. Yet their attempts didn’t work, as the captain had passed away in the cockpit.

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Prior to Attenborough’s untimely death, he’d been a pilot for around two decades. And in addition to that, he’d had two children with his wife. As the kids grew up, one of them decided to follow in their dad’s footsteps, with Royd Attenborough forging a career in the cockpit. Speaking after the tragedy, he revealed that his family were left devastated.

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“It has come as a complete shock [to us],” Royd told U.K. newspaper The Independent in January 1996. “Dad was fit and well, and [had] passed all his six-month medicals with flying colors.” Indeed, as Attenborough’s son intimated, pilots have to undergo medical tests over the course of their career.

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For the younger pilots, they face a physical exam once a year, while those who are 40 and older need to be tested twice. Sadly for Attenborough, those medicals couldn’t prepare him for what eventually transpired at the start of 1996. Meanwhile, another high profile incident hit the news in August 2017.

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On that particular occasion, a Flybe plane was due to leave Inverness, Scotland, for the island of Jersey. The aircraft was carrying over 40 people at the time, with the pilots overseeing the controls as normal. However, some way through the commercial flight, their journey took a very scary turn.

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As the aircraft’s commander was analyzing the cockpit, he was interrupted by an alarming sight. His co-pilot started to have a seizure, inadvertently taking the plane off autopilot. Due to his uncontrollable movements, he also hit some of the pedals. This action caused the jet to “slew” in the air.

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A member of the crew was knocked off their feet by the resulting movement, before the commander shouted for help. Thankfully, one of the other cabin crew staffers was able to hold down the co-pilot in his seat, keeping him away from the pedals. From there, the plane was eventually brought back under control.

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Following all that drama, the Flybe plane changed course and landed in Manchester, England. A medical team then entered the aircraft to tend to the co-pilot, who was transported to a local hospital. In the end, he was discharged from the facility a few hours later, as they felt no need to hold him.

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An investigation into the matter soon followed, with the commander and his cabin crew receiving plaudits for their actions. Furthermore, the airliner’s chief operating officer offered his own thoughts on what happened as well. According to Luke Farajallah, all of Flybe’s members of staff are trained for moments like this.

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“All airlines train their crew to be prepared for all possible incidents,” Farajallah told The Independent website in June 2018. “Including – however rare – that of a pilot becoming incapacitated during flight.” After that, he switched his focus back to the investigation and its final results regarding the Flybe crew.

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Farajallah added, “The report duly recognizes that the crew immediately and efficiently implemented the required precautionary procedures necessary to ensure the continued safe operation of the aircraft. And the flight landed safely without further incident. Flybe crews are highly trained professionals, and such procedures are reinforced on a regular basis.”

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So with that in mind, incidents of this type certainly aren’t unheard of in the present period of time. In fact, one more report hit the headlines back in November 2019, as a group of passengers were traveling across Russia. And like we previously mentioned, they received an all-mighty shock to the system.

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The plane in question left Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow at around 8.20 A.M. on November 24, 2019. All being well, it was set to arrive in Anapa more than two hours later, with a 49-year-old pilot overseeing the journey. However, no one could’ve predicted what eventually transpired during that flight.

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As the passengers relaxed in their seats, the pilot suffered a heart attack in the cockpit. At that stage, the crew were alerted to the problem and took control of the aircraft, while the pilot’s condition continued to worsen. Given the situation, the staff frantically searched for someone on board who could help.

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On that note, one passenger looked back on those dramatic moments of panic while speaking with the Russian network RT. Her name was Yelena Voronova, and she described the actions of the cabin crew rather succinctly. Understandably, they were desperate to help the fallen pilot once he was taken ill.

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“A stewardess practically ran across the aisle,” Voronova recalled to RT. “[The cabin crew] later asked if there were any doctors on board, and said they really needed them. Then they asked again.” Despite their best efforts, the crew couldn’t find anyone to assist them ahead of the plane’s emergency landing.

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Instead of arriving in Anapa, the plane landed in Rostov, Russia, at 9.57 A.M. Once they touched down, a group of paramedics then tried to help the pilot, loading him into an ambulance. But while the medics attempted to save his life, it proved to be too late, as we’re about to discover.

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A representative from Aeroflot made the announcement via the RBC media company. They said, “Unfortunately it was not possible to resuscitate the pilot. He died in the ambulance. We express our sincere condolences to his family and friends.” As for the plane, it eventually completed the journey to Anapa later that afternoon.

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Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the airline also came forward to talk to The Independent after the tragedy. They went on to run down the events of what happened in great detail, but that’s not all. Indeed, the individual also discussed the pilot’s medical status prior to his untimely death in November 2019.

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“The co-pilot on flight SU1546 from Moscow to Anapa was suddenly taken ill mid-flight,” the representative said. “The captain took the decision to make an emergency landing at Rostov-on-Don, where medical staff were waiting. Tragically, however, the medical staff were unable to save our colleague, and he died on the way to the hospital.”

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The spokesperson continued, “Everyone at Aeroflot is deeply saddened by our colleague’s death, and we extend our sincere condolences to his friends and loved ones. The pilot had a clean medical history, and had passed a regular compulsory medical test the day before the flight. As well as a six-monthly examination by a medical commission in the summer.”

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To conclude, the spokesperson then made a rather defiant point to the British news outlet about their country’s methods. They added, “Russian regulations regarding the health of civil aviation pilots are among the toughest in the world. And any question marks over a pilot’s fitness to fly results in [an] immediate grounding.”

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Thankfully for the passengers on that flight, the co-pilot was able to take over when his colleague had the heart attack. You see, all commercial planes need to have two pilots present, just in case something like this happens. Incredibly, though, someone within the industry made a shocking statement on the matter back in 2010.

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Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary didn’t believe that co-pilots were necessary, despite all of the previously mentioned incidents. In his opinion, the only use they could serve was to hand out hot drinks to the passengers on board. Unsurprisingly, these views were quickly criticized by many in the air travel sector.

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Danny Fyne was one of them, as the PPRuNe website editor shared his thoughts with U.K. news site The Telegraph in September 2010. During his interview, he claimed that a lack of co-pilots would spell disaster if the pilots themselves needed to step away from the controls. But Fyne didn’t stop there, though.

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Fyne said, “You can’t land a plane without human intervention. The plane has to be set at the right speed, the flaps have to be set for the approach. You might as well tell Michael O’Leary that the next time he goes into hospital he can get a nurse to do the operation, because the surgeon is feeling under the weather.”

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To really hammer the point home, the Civil Aviation Authority released some statistics that showed 32 pilots became “incapacitated” back in 2009. Therefore, the co-pilot was called upon in those situations to take control of the aircraft, just like the person did on the Aeroflot plane. After that, someone else offered a few final thoughts.

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Robert Gifford, who worked for Britain’s Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said, “These figures show that co-pilots can be a real necessity on aircraft. Without a second person in the cockpit, trained and able to fly the plane, any of these incidents could have led to loss of life. And [they could’ve made a] colossal impact on the safety reputation of commercial aviation.”

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