Trainee pilot passes out for 55 minutes over sea

A trainee pilot was unconscious at the controls of his light plane for 55 minutes as it flew 250km on autopilot over the Australian city of Adelaide and out to sea, an investigation has revealed.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) report said the young pilot – whose flying licence has since been suspended – regained consciousness to find he had overshot the city’s Parafield airport and was heading out to sea.

The unnamed pilot, referred to as a ‘Middle Eastern man’ in Australian media reports, studied with Flight Training Adelaide for a year on an Emirates Airlines scholarship. “As the medical aspects of this case are currently under investigation, Emirates is unable to make any comment,” a spokesperson for Emirates said in emailed statement to Emirates 24/7.

The cadet pilot wasn’t flying an Emirates aircraft at the time of the incident, and investigations concluded that that no one was injured during what the ATSB classifies as a "serious incident" and no damage was done to the aircraft.

According to the ATSB’s report, the incident occurred on December 27, 2010, when a trainee pilot was on a solo flying training exercise onboard a SOCATA TB-10 Tobago aircraft, registered VH-YTF.

While in air, “the pilot reported feeling hot and began to sweat. He checked that the cabin heat was selected off and the cabin air vents were open and climbed to 6,500 ft to allow cooler air into the aircraft,” the ATSB investigation report states.

“The pilot reported that he lost consciousness in the climb with the aircraft auto-pilot engaged in heading mode and the elevator pitch setting trimmed for the climb attitude. It is estimated that the pilot remained unconscious for approximately 55 minutes,” the report states.

“The pilot regained consciousness approximately 12 NM (22 km) south-west of Adelaide Airport and responded to a radio call from Adelaide Radar. He was issued a clearance to return to Parafield Airport,” the report states.

“Subsequent medical examinations could not find the cause of the loss of consciousness. The pilot’s medical certificate was subsequently suspended,” it states.

Both the ATSB and Civil Aerospace Medical Institute of the US Federal Aviation Administration have conducted recent research into pilot incapacitation. The reports conclude that medical incapacitation is a rare event. The most common causes of loss of consciousness were gastrointestinal, neurological, cardiac and urological events.

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