Co-pilot `not in control of his senses’

Man restrained by crew, taken off plane by police

Jan 30, 2008 04:30 AM

staff reporters

The co-pilot's eyes were closed and his hands and feet were bound as he was escorted off Air Canada Flight 848 at Shannon International Airport by two Irish police officers.

"It's okay. You can text me. You can email me," the disoriented man mumbled to no one in particular as he was taken off the plane, passenger Chris Robson recalled in an interview with the Star last night.

The co-pilot's head was tilted toward the ceiling and his shirttail hung out from under a khaki sweater.

Air Canada confirmed the co-pilot of a flight from Pearson airport to London was admitted to an Irish hospital after becoming ill in the cockpit on Monday.

"The co-pilot fell ill during the flight and the captain elected to divert to Shannon," Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said yesterday. "The aircraft landed without incident. At no time were the safety of the passengers or crew in question."

But Fitzpatrick would not confirm a report by the Irish Independent newspaper that the co-pilot suffered a nervous breakdown and is undergoing psychiatric care after being forcibly removed from the flight.


It all happened quickly.

About five and half hours into the flight, Robson awoke to the sound of many footsteps hurrying to the front of the plane. It was about 2 a.m. Monday, Toronto time.

"Look, we've got a really serious medical emergency on board," a concerned flight attendant told him as he walked to the front of the plane and was told to use the facilities at the back of the plane.

There was a call for a medical person from among the passengers. "We have a medical emergency, the flight services director called out on the plane," recalled Robson, a global training adviser for Imperial, who was in sitting in the centre row of business class about 4 metres from the co-pilot as he was restrained by the crew on the floor outside the galley.

"He was clearly someone not in control of his senses," said Robson.

The captain came on and said the flight was being diverted to Shannon Airport.

"I saw the crew all around a man on the floor outside the galley (just behind the cockpit). It appeared they were restraining him," said Robson. "He was looking around. He was swearing and yelling."

Others on board said they heard the co-pilot say "he wanted to talk to God ... that the plane was low on fuel," recalled Robson.

Shortly after the plane landed, Robson recalled, "The aisles were full of officials."

At one point, three members of the Shannon Airport police, five members of the Irish Garda and two paramedics had come on board to investigate the disturbance before the co-pilot was escorted off the plane.

Passengers disembarked and waited about seven hours before another flight crew arrived from Heathrow to fly them to London on the same plane, said Robson.

During that time, business class patrons were given 20 euros for food and economy class members were given 15 euros, he said.

Robson, who is constantly taking international business flights, said the incident would not deter him from flying Air Canada again. "Absolutely. They were gracious and sensitive. At no point were we scared," he said.

However, Robson did think it curious there was no mention of compensation for the inconvenience and delay passengers suffered.

Other passengers on the flight say they were stunned when they found out the "disruptive" man on board was actually the co-pilot of the plane.

"I heard him swearing and yelling," said Jessica Schneider, who was travelling with her 9-month-old daughter. "I thought it was a passenger, I had no idea that it was a co-pilot.

"We didn't know what was going on, " she said, adding she only found out the man had been the co-pilot after talking to family members in Toronto.

Schneider was one of 136 passengers on Air Canada Flight 848 that was forced to make an emergency landing in Shannon after the co-pilot became ill on board.

Passengers were first alerted to the emergency when an announcement was made asking for help from a doctor or nurse halfway through the seven-hour flight.

Less than an hour from landing, the man was moved into a seat in the first row of the economy class section, said Schneider, who was sitting a number of rows behind the man. "I could definitely hear him, and he was yelling at people trying to help him as well."

"Our member was taken to hospital, where he is being treated," said Capt. Andy Wilson, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, in a news release.

A report by the Irish Independent newspaper said the co-pilot needed psychiatric care.

When paramedics came to take him off the plane, Schneider said the man appeared to be resistant and was swearing. "He wasn't co-operating with them, he didn't want to go with them."

He was eventually taken off the plane on a stretcher, she said.

A source at Mid West Region Hospital, in the town of Ennis just north of Shannon, confirmed last night that the co-pilot had been admitted and was in the acute unit at the hospital.

Other than the inconvenience of having to stop over at a small airport for seven hours, Schneider said none of the passengers appeared to be too worried by the outburst or the incident.

"They never told us the nature of the problem," she said. "Which is probably a good thing, since people don't really like to hear that their pilot has gone crazy.

"I am just glad that it ended well. ... It's scary to think what could have happened."

Chagnon Denis, a spokesperson with the International Civil Aviation Organization, said that even though the incident took place outside Canadian airspace, an investigation would take place by the airline and Canadian authorities. Transport Canada spokesperson Lucie Vignola said the agency will be interviewing the flight crew and the airline, but said it appeared that proper procedures were followed.

Fitzpatrick said Air Canada would do an internal evaluation to "see what could be learned from the incident."