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Pilot thought instructor who died during flight was 'just joking,' safety report says

The pilot had noticed the flying instructor was unresponsive for some time but thought he was "pretending," said a report on the incident in Lancashire, England, last year.

The co-pilot of a flying instructor who died midflight thought his co-pilot was "just joking" during the ordeal, a safety report has revealed.

The incident, which happened near Blackpool Airport in Lancashire, England, on June 29, was detailed in a new safety report published by the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

The pilot, who was qualified to fly, had planned to operate a four-person Piper PA-2 from Blackpool Airport to another airfield, the report said. When he arrived at the flying club, however, he noticed conditions were windy and asked the instructor to accompany him for safety reasons.

The pilot recalled that they had been talking normally as the plane taxied in preparation for takeoff, the report said. At one point, he remembered the instructor, who was 57, saying: "Looks good, there is nothing behind you," it said.

The pilot did not recall the instructor’s saying anything else after that point.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot said, he noticed the instructor's head had rolled back.

Piper PA-28-161 Cherokee Warrior II G-GURU in flight at Breighton Airfield
A Piper PA-28-161 similar to the one on which a co-pilot died midflight.Susan & Allan Parker / Alamy Stock Photo

"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 said.

The pilot went ahead with flying the aircraft around the circuit, later noticing that the instructor had slumped over, with his head resting on the pilot's shoulder.

Still, the pilot said, he thought the instructor was "just joking with him" and went ahead with carrying out a normal landing, the report said.

It was only after he landed that the pilot realized something must actually be wrong, he said, with the instructor still resting on his shoulder and not communicating, according to the report.

That is when the pilot flagged the issue to an airport fire crew, prompting an air ambulance medical crew based at the airport to respond.

The fire crew and the air ambulance crew tried to revive the instructor, but they were unable to save him.

An autopsy found that the instructor, who had nearly 9,000 hours of flying experience, died from acute cardiac failure, the report said. He had a medical history of high blood pressure and had been taking medication since 2002.

People who had spoken to him on the morning of the flight said that he had been his "normal cheerful self" and that there were "no indications that he was feeling unwell," the report said.

It noted that three people had flown with him in a trial lesson before the incident. They said that he had "seemed well" and that "nothing abnormal had occurred."

The report said the circumstances surrounding the incident did not fall within the definitions of either an accident or a serious incident.

Still, an analysis in the report said that "had this occurred on another flight the outcome could have been different."

"Cardiac events are a significant cause of sudden incapacitation, including death, in both the general population and among aviation personnel. In multi-pilot commercial air transport the safety risk is mitigated by the second pilot," it said.

Ultimately, the analysis said, "No tests or assessment can give a 100% reliable detection of cardiac issues and any additional tests or assessment presents a risk to the individual of potentially unnecessary loss of license.

"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 cause by cardiac events in flight suggests this balance is currently about right," it said.