Several newspapers including The Guardian and The Irish Independent have reported have reported over the past few days that an Air Canada 767 bound for London Heathrow had to divert to Dublin Shannon following one of the co-pilots suffering from ‘nervous breakdown’.
The Irish Independent reports that the co-pilot had been ‘acting in a peculiar manner and was talking loudly to himself’ during the transatlantic crossing and the crew had become concerned. From The Guardian we learn that he was restrained after yelling and "invoking God" while at the controls of the plane. The Guardian continues by quoting one of the passengers on board, who said that the co-pilot was carried into the cabin with his hands and ankles cuffed after being restrained by, amongst others, an off-duty Canadian soldier. He was subsequently handcuffed to a seat as his captain requested permission to land from Irish air traffic authorities.
I read of what sound like quite severe psychotic symptoms: ‘His voice was clear, he didn’t sound like he was drunk or anything, but he was swearing and asking for God. He specifically said he wants to talk to God’. When the plane landed in Dublin, he was met by a medical team who assessed him at the scene before transferring him to a psychiatric unit in Ennis.
It’s hard to imagine a more difficult situation for any of the people involved in this incident. It must have been terrifying for the passengers on board the aircraft as well as extremely distressing for the crew to have to restrain one of their colleagues. We should reserve some of our sympathy for the co-pilot too. A previously high functioning individual, when he recovers he will have to come to terms with what has happened as well as facing the end of his flying career.
A search of the Canadian Civil Aviation authority website suggests that anyone with a history of psychotic illness is not permitted to fly aircraft. It is therefore likely that this is a first presentation of psychiatric illness for this pilot, or possibly he has in some way concealed any problems he has had in order to maintain his chosen career ultimately putting passengers at risk.
A recent article in the New Scientist is about antidepressant use amongst pilots. It tells us that most aviation authorities do not allow pilots on antidepressants to fly. The Australian Civil Aviation Authority is one of the few that do and a study there suggested that pilots on antidepressants were not at greater risk of accidents. It also suggests that banning pilots from flying who are taking antidepressants may actually increase accidents by discouraging depressed pilots from seeking treatment. Perhaps this pilot did not seek help until it was too late with very nearly devastating consequences.